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Trump Downplays Threat Of 'Gift' From North Korea


North Korea had promised an unspecified Christmas present for the United States if negotiations over the North's nuclear weapons program remained at a standstill. Well, they are at a standstill, which left the North's neighbors and the United States on edge, fearing some sort of weapon or missile test. But Christmas Day is almost gone on the Korean Peninsula, with no sign of any present or even a lump of coal.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul and joins me. Hi, Anthony.


GREENE: Do we have any idea what North Korea even meant by this with this threat of a Christmas present?

KUHN: Well, you know, these were remarks that were made by a North Korean official earlier this month. And I think analysts say correctly that we really should not take them too literally because the North Koreans can do whatever they want at any time. Of course, the U.S. and South Korean militaries are not taking chances. They've been watching for signs of provocations and not seeing any. And the leaders of the U.S., Japan, China and South Korea have all been talking amongst each other about what to do about possible provocations. But there's really not a lot they can do to keep negotiations rolling at this time. So North Korea is going to do what it's going to do.

GREENE: Well, and that leads to, like, the larger question here. It's not just about one holiday threat. Is there some bigger shift in North Korea's strategy here?

KUHN: Yeah. That's the concern - that there's a major shift about to take place, a sort of a turning point in - and you know, Kim Jong Un has been indicating this all year that if he does not get what he wants from dialogue, he doesn't get the sanctions relief or the security guarantees, he's going to strike out on - in sort of a new way, a new policy. He's going to beef up his military, try to achieve a better, more favorable balance of the power - of power with the U.S. and then try to get what he wants from talks.

But you know, any announcement of a policy shift, a major turning, would probably come from Kim himself in an annual New Year's address, or it could come from the leadership of the ruling Workers' Party, which is supposed to have a year-end meeting, although we don't exactly know when. And basically, there are only a few days left.

GREENE: Oh, but interesting - the holiday we might really be looking to is New Year's and not Christmas to see what the North is up to.

KUHN: Right.

GREENE: I mean, is there reason to believe we could go back to 2017 and all that nuclear brinksmanship and President Trump saying things like fire and fury - are we going there?

KUHN: A lot of analysts are worried about it. They don't see a lot of reason for optimism. But there are some factors that could lead to a more optimistic analysis. Basically, Kim Jong Un still has a window of opportunity with two presidents - in the U.S. and South Korea - who are willing to deal with him and possibly cut a deal. President Trump could still be around for up to five years, and South Korea's President Moon could still be there for two-plus years.

Also, I don't think analysts feel that North Korea is going to go straight to nuclear testing and intercontinental ballistic missiles as they're present because they still want to be able to have leverage over the U.S., and they may want to ratchet up pressure one small step at a time. A lot of people also note that North Korea does not want to anger its chief ally. And if they make any serious provocation, they could - China could find a greater U.S. military presence on its doorstep, and it does not want that.

GREENE: How does the U.S. respond, how do allies respond if the North does get more hostile?

KUHN: Well, a lot of people are predicting the end of diplomacy and pointing fingers. There are basically two camps, one that says that North Korea cannot be trusted; the only thing you can do is pressure them into submission - the other camp that says, look; North Korea is not going to give up its nukes right away. We have to first try to get an arms control deal that freezes and then rolls back their nuclear programs. The Trump administration has been split on this, and it's not clear which side in the end is going to win out.

GREENE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn with us from Seoul. Thanks so much, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.