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What Kind of ‘Great Operation’ Does North Korea Have in Mind?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom, June 30, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Far away from the debate stage in Ohio, North Korean’s regime is making some vague, ominous announcements: “Aides to Kim Jong Un are convinced the North Korean leader plans “a great operation,” state media said on Wednesday in a report that included lavish descriptions and images of the leader riding a white horse up North Korea’s most sacred mountain.”

At first glance, Kim Jong Un is currently sitting pretty. He’s got a U.S. president who is willing to meet with him and have big summit meetings. He’s still got his nukes, and the rest of the world has limited leverage to get him to give them up. The Trump administration’s relationship with the South Koreans and Japanese is complicated at best. North Korea is launching missiles into Japanese waters again.

The North Korean regime back to testing and launching, and Trump hand-waves them away as small potatoes — even though the pause in testing and launches were one of the few measurable benefits of the previous effort at outreach.

Yes, the U.S. and South Korea are back to doing joint exercises, and there are still plenty of sanctions. The Norks recently called the negotiations “sickening.”  Our ambassador to South Korea recently characterized the most recent talks as, “North Korea demanded that the United States do everything before doing anything.” Maybe we’re about to get another round of brinksmanship, with Kim Jong-un thinks he can get Trump to blink on sanctions.

The North Koreans are probably miscalculating if they think Trump will make more concessions, but that wouldn’t be the first time Pyongyang did that. Trump’s dealing with impeachment, abandoning the Kurds, USMCA, China trade negotiations, and reelection. He just doesn’t have any political capital to spend on, “hey, let’s cut the North Koreans a break, let’s see if that makes them more agreeable.”

The worst case scenario would be that Pyongyang concluded from the situation with the Kurds (and the aborted strike on Iran!) that when push comes to shove, Trump will absolutely refuse to use military force to defend an ally, particularly a year away from running for reelection.

If you’re a country that’s hostile to the United States, you’re entering a brief but significant time period of golden opportunities. Trump isn’t inclined to stand up for allies to begin with, he’s reluctant to get involved in foreign wars, the U.S. is deeply internally divided, and Trump probably isn’t going anywhere for another 14 months or so, at minimum. If you want to start some trouble or make aggressive moves, you do it now. The political environment in the United States probably will not change until November 2020 at the earliest. A hostile state could do something aggressive now, and then offer a peace deal to President Warren or whomever shortly after Inauguration Day, consolidating their gains . . .

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