In this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey, a severe crisis on the Korean Peninsula following the collapse of the denuclearization negotiations and renewed long-range missile testing was a ranked by foreign policy experts as a top conflict to watch in 2020. After a nearly two-year honeymoon period between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un, the anticipation of renewed provocations on the Korean Peninsula looms large as we begin 2020. Despite the flurry of summitry, there has been little in the way of concrete progress toward a peace treaty and denuclearization, and Kim remains critical of what he labels the United States’ hostile policies of joint exercises between the United States and South Korea and U.S. and international sanctions. In light of the limited progress, Kim recently declared at the Fifth Plenum of the Korean Worker’s Party’s Central Committee that North Korea no longer feels beholden to its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental and intermediate range ballistic missile tests.
While no one expected the negotiations between the United States and North Korea to be easy, because the initial concerns and priorities between the two states were so divergent after decades of animosity, the talks have not produced any concrete results on the denuclearization front. North Korea’s goal is getting some kind of peace treaty through the denuclearization talks that will free them from possible U.S. attacks in the future as well as sanctions relief. The Trump administration’s goal is achieving verifiable and irreversible steps towards denuclearization. Yet, despite the lack of real progress on denuclearization, the talks have established new channels for communication between Washington and Pyongyang and opportunities for communication at the highest levels—something that should not be overlooked.
A resumption of North Korean tests will certainly complicate any future diplomatic efforts, and other domestic political and foreign policy hot spots are emerging ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election that could push talks with North Korea to the back burner. The setback will mean more uncertainty on the future of North Korea’s nuclear program and the security of U.S. allies in East Asia. Despite the fact that little has been achieved through summit diplomacy to date, the conditions for a deal remain more promising than at any time in recent history. President Trump enjoys the support of South Korea’s progressive President Moon Jae-in in his pursuit of establishing a modus vivendi with Pyongyang. While more wary, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prioritizes the U.S.-Japan relationship and will thus support Washington’s efforts. Conditions could quickly change though. President Moon’s domestic popularity is rapidly deteriorating, South Korea-Japan relations are at their worst in decades, and Abe, as noted, remains a sceptic, who would likely shift position if North Korea resumes missile tests over Japanese territory.
It is critical that the Trump administration remain committed to talks and not get distracted by North Korea’s blustery threats of renewed provocations—or by other domestic political and foreign policy crises. If the U.S. government is serious about the end result of denuclearization, the White House and supporting agencies should continue to take initiatives to plan the next set of talks. Ignoring North Korea would mean only acquiescence to the further expansion of North Korea’s programs, and Kim will keep using the expansion of his nuclear and missile programs as cards to continue to gain attention from the United States and to bolster his domestic credibility. As alarming and unsettling as North Korea’s missile provocations and hostile rhetoric may be, they are not new. Rather than focusing on and reacting to North Korea’s “bad behavior,” the United States needs to take a long-term initiative that will survive the election cycle or possible change of administration. North Korea understands the U.S. election cycle which will be focused on domestic issues more in the year of an election than foreign policy issues. Hence the “Christmas gift” threats were issued late last year. North Korea also understands that with the possibility of change in administrations the denuclearization talks might not survive, as happened with the Iran nuclear deal. North Korea wants something concrete that is more than a “deal.” While North Korea is one of the many foreign policy issues the United States will deal with in 2020, it is one of the issues where escalation and escalation control are both possible.
About the Preventive Priorities Survey
Since 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action (CPA) has conducted an annual survey of foreign policy experts for their collective assessments on contingencies that represent the greatest risk to U.S. interests. This year, CPA began soliciting contingencies in October 2019, narrowing down a list of possible conflicts from nearly one thousand suggestions to thirty contingencies deemed likely and potentially harmful to U.S. interests. In early November, CPA sent the survey to nearly six thousand experts and received about five hundred responses. The survey results were scored according to their rankings and the contingencies were sorted into one of three preventive priority tiers (I, II, III) according to their placement on CPA’s risk assessment matrix.
The results reflect the expert opinion of respondents at that time. As such, it should be viewed as a snapshot assessment. Recognizing this, CPA tracks ongoing conflicts, including the North Korea crisis, with the Global Conflict Tracker.
View the full results of the Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2020.