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What's Behind North Korea's 'Christmas Gift' Threat


Here's the story behind a Christmas present. That's what a North Korean official threatened to deliver to the U.S. in the coming days.


ANDY WILLIAMS: (Singing) Happy holiday.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Happy holiday.

INSKEEP: The country's leader, Kim Jong Un, set a deadline - the end of this year. Either the U.S. gives better terms and talks over North Korea's nuclear weapons, or the countries return to confrontation. It could start with some North Korean provocation, though you never really know what's in a present until it's opened.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) It's the holiday season. And Santa Claus is coming 'round...

INSKEEP: How did we get here? How did the promise of talks and a deal with North Korea turn to threats? Sources inside and outside the U.S. government helped us trace the story. A good place to start is a more hopeful moment, one of President Trump's three meetings with North Korea's leader.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're in Hanoi. It's an incredible city.

INSKEEP: The president met Kim Jong Un in Vietnam early this year.


TRUMP: He's quite a guy and quite a character. And...

INSKEEP: But they did not make an agreement to end North Korea's nuclear program.


TRUMP: Sometimes, you have to walk. And this was just one of those times. And I'll let my...

INSKEEP: The decision to walk started a chain of events. After the disappointment in February, Kim Jong Un made a declaration in April. Jenny Town closely follows North Korea for the website 38 North. So she took note of the leader's speech before the North Korean People's Assembly.

JENNY TOWN: Kim Jong Un basically said that he would give the U.S. until the end of the year for the U.S. and North Korea to make progress and to come to some kind of agreement on how they move forward. I think this was a sign of frustration with the process.

INSKEEP: Has that deadline set by Kim Jong Un become a little time bomb?

TOWN: Yes. They're going to have to do something now.

INSKEEP: U.S. and North Korean negotiators have met in recent months but have made no progress. A U.S. official familiar with the talks describes North Korea's negotiators as, quote, "professional but afraid." For their own safety, they want Kim Jong Un to decide on any deal North Korea makes, but he's not in the room. Now we near that holiday deadline that was imposed in frustration. And satellite images suggest North Korea has been firing off rocket engines as if preparing for some kind of long-range missile test.

Is it possible, then, that North Korea is on its way to some dramatic confrontation by mistake?

TOWN: The key is, yeah, by mistake. We have a situation now where it's unclear if there are red lines on what the U.S. - for instance, U.S. red lines would be.

INSKEEP: Ever since the president has been meeting and exchanging letters with Kim Jong Un, North Korea has refrained from nuclear tests and long-range missile tests. Nobody knows what President Trump would do if North Korea resumes. The U.S. is doing one thing as the deadline nears, according to an official - trying to deliver a constant message of reassurance to Kim Jong Un.


KELLY CRAFT: I shall now make a further statement in my capacity as the representative of the United States.

INSKEEP: In New York this month, Ambassador Kelly Craft called the U.N. Security Council to order. She is the U.S. representative to the United Nations and led a session on North Korea's threat. Ambassador Craft sounded disappointed...


CRAFT: The DPRK has continued to advance its prohibited programs.

INSKEEP: ...But also worked to sound reasonable.


CRAFT: We have not asked North Korea to do everything before we do anything.

INSKEEP: What's that mean? We put that question to Joseph Yun. Until 2018, he was the State Department negotiator for North Korea. He says the U.S. used to emphasize that North Korea must start any deal by giving up everything - its entire nuclear program.

JOSEPH YUN: All that must happen before U.S. will begin to normalize relations. In other words, you guys - you go first, and then we'll make sure what you've done is acceptable. And then we will do our end.

INSKEEP: In various statements throughout this year, the U.S. has said something a little different. It still wants all of North Korea's nuclear program, but the two sides might take smaller steps first.

CRAFT: What Ambassador Craft is saying is that, no, it's not completely the case that North Koreans have to do everything before U.S. does any reciprocal steps. We could do what's called step-by-step or incremental measures, as it's sometimes called.

INSKEEP: A U.S. official says Americans are willing to discuss early measures. Maybe each country could put a liaison office in the other's capital. Neither has an embassy in the other right now. But what North Korea really wants is relief from global economic sanctions without giving up all weapons. At that U.N. meeting, North Korea's only friends, China and Russia, tried to get that. Through an interpreter, China's representative spoke in favor of easing the pressure on North Korea.


ZHANG JUN: (Through interpreter) Sanctions are only a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

INSKEEP: Still, that year-end deadline is nearing. And North Korea has been sending contradictory signals in a stream of public statements by different officials.

TOWN: To me, it looks a little bit like good cop, bad cop.

INSKEEP: Jenny Town says one of those contradictory messages was the threat of a Christmas present that now hangs over the end of the year. That present could challenge the unpredictable American president just as he begins an election year.

Are you confident that we're still watching rational actors who may push and pull but aren't going to risk, you know, blowing up the world?

TOWN: I do believe that that's the intention. But there's a lot of room for miscalculation right now.

INSKEEP: Jenny Town of the website 38 North does plan to take a vacation this holiday season, though she will also be following the news.


WILLIAMS: (Laughter) Do you see what I see? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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