With talk about countermeasures, “dotards,” end-of-year deadlines, and “definite” decisions, the scene is set for some kind of serious North Korean provocation in the next several weeks. We just don’t know what that provocation will be.
Some people have their minds made up. There is a general consensus in the Korea policy community and the commentariat that when Kim Jong-un speaks about “a new way,” he is suggesting a return to the ICBM and/or nuclear testing that predominated before he started writing letters to President Donald Trump. Activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on December 7 has led renowned missile specialists like the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Michael Elleman to assess that a ballistic missile or satellite test may happen in the not-so-distant future. There have even been innuendo about an atmospheric nuclear explosion, an event that would make policymakers in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo extremely nervous.
Something is clearly up. An acceleration of E-8C surveillance flights over the Korean Peninsula wouldn’t be the trend if the U.S. military wasn’t anticipating some kind of response from the North Koreans during or shortly after the holiday season. But sitting here in New York City, 6,800 miles away from the North Korean capital and devoid of much inside access, I continue to believe the “Christmas gift” Kim Jong-un is talking about will be far less dramatic than many prognosticators expect.
I say this with some reservation—both because the Kim regime can make even the most knowledge Korea analysts look silly and because there is a lot we don’t know about Kim’s motivations (anybody who is confident in their predictions is either supremely mesmerized by their own ego or is selling an empty bag of goods). But let’s take a step back and try to see the world from where Kim is sitting at this particular time.