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The Ball is in Kim Jong-un’s Court

Astymied diplomatic process, as well as overriding domestic political considerations on both sides, will probably keep dynamics between North Korea and the United States relatively unchanged for the rest of 2020. While provocations and escalation are always a possibility on the Korean peninsula, the likelihood that both leaders see U.S.-DPRK dynamics as a key feature of their domestic political calculations only adds uncertainty to a historically tumultuous relationship.

After a year of remarkably aggressive rhetoric and almost two years of diplomacy with sky-high expectations for dramatic diplomatic success, declaring “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat [sic] from North Korea,” President Trump has only achieved a freeze in North Korean nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests.

Tangible progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization remains remote, and North Korea has been able to continue to build ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons while demonstrating increasingly sophisticated short-range strike capabilities.

These failures seem to have driven President Trump to adopt a third approach beginning in late 2019: declare victory and try to move on. He has adopted an “all is well” rhetorical posture, repeatedly dismissing North Korea’s short-range missiles tests and praising his “good relationship” with Kim while also establishing a rather permissive approach to North Korea’s human rights violations.

President Trump seems to have shifted his priorities away from DPRK-focused diplomacy even before the COVID-19 crisis took hold, reportedly telling his advisors that he does not want another summit with Kim before the presidential election.

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