All year, President Donald Trump refused to respond as North Korea carried out short-range missile tests and chipped away at crippling international sanctions. He even ignored a new volley of insults branding him a “heedless and erratic old man.”
That restraint may not last much longer as North Korea hints darkly that it will make a major move by the end of this month, possibly including a long-range missile launch or a nuclear bomb test as a “Christmas gift” to the US.
“It’s hard to get a rise out of someone if they keep turning the other cheek,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said of Trump’s responses so far. “I think he’d be willing to downplay even bigger provocations until they cross the line, and then after that really we don’t know.”
A return to intercontinental ballistic missile launches or nuclear tests could send US-North Korea ties back to where they were in 2017, when tensions between the historic enemies surged and analysts worried about a military conflict. It would also undermine what Trump considers one of his key foreign policy achievements as he faces impeachment proceedings and heads into an election year. At the crux of the president’s calculations is whether it’s worthwhile to keep pressing North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to negotiate even though he’s no closer to giving up his nuclear weapons.