Another day, another round of missile tests from the North Koreans.
On November 28, on the same day Americans were sitting down for their turkey dinners, Pyongyang launched two projectiles from what its state media referred to as a super-large multiple rocket launcher. The test came days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited front-line units conducting an artillery drill near the disputed inter-Korean maritime border, an exercise that came roughly nine years after Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, ordered the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, killing four South Koreans.
Since last May, two months after President Donald Trump and Kim walked away from a high-stakes summit in Hanoi, Vietnam without a nuclear agreement, North Korea’s missile testing schedule has been on a tear. This year has been Pyongyang’s most active on the missile front since 2017, a time when Trump and Kim were faking fun of each other about their lack of intelligence (remember “dotard?”) and one-upping one another about the size of their nuclear buttons. The question increasingly on everybody’s mind is whether 2020 will turn out like 2017 (when it felt like war was in the air) or like 2018, when the sea started parting ways to make room for a diplomatic channel?
We don’t know the answer, as of yet. But if the situation doesn’t start turning around (and soon), we could be waking up on New Year’s Day with a hangover and a “fire and fury” migraine parsing through our heads. Stanford University’s Robert Carlin said it best to the New York Times: “Today, we sit on top of a live volcano. We don’t have a lot of time to back away.”
As the new year approaches, priority number one for both Washington and Pyongyang is to do everything possible to avert the “new way” Kim has been mysteriously telegraphing since the spring. Forget about striking a denuclearization deal this year—it’s not going to happen. Instead, begin concentrating on preserving what little oxygen remains for diplomacy.