Now we (probably) know what North Korea's "Christmas gift" is

As John discussed on Wednesday, the saber-rattling in North Korea has been slowly ramping back up in recent weeks. Their dictator, Kim Jong-un indicated that he would have a special “Christmas gift” for the United States unless we offered up some significant concessions in the ongoing talks. Since he clearly wasn’t thinking of buying Donald Trump a Peloton to put under the White House tree for the First Lady, that likely meant renewed activity on the nuclear weapons and/or ICBM front.

That bit of speculation seemed to have been confirmed yesterday. Kim announced that his country had completed an “important test” at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. And the location alone makes this a provocative move. (Associated Press)

North Korea said Sunday it carried out a “very important test” at its long-range rocket launch site that U.S. and South Korean officials said the North had partially dismantled as part of denuclearization steps.

The announcement comes amid dimming prospects for a resumption of nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States, with the North pressing to wrest major U.S. concessions by year’s end.

The Korean Central News Agency said the test was conducted at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on Saturday afternoon.

As you may recall, the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground was one of the nuclear/missile sites that North Korea was supposedly decommissioning back in the good old days when Kim and President Trump were chatting like brand new besties. Shutting that site down would have represented a small but significant step toward denuclearizing the peninsula and could have earned Kim some credit toward possible sanction relief.

But now it seems that their declared intentions to close it down were probably just a ruse. (Our intelligence agencies have reportedly been watching the site anyway and already knew this.) Pardon me if I don’t faint from shock over the idea that Kim has been lying and going back on his promises again.

So what sort of “important test” was this? Unconfirmed reports indicate that North Korea may be moving from liquid-fueled rockets to solid fuels. That’s bad news because it means that their ICBMs could be significantly more mobile and able to be launched on shorter notice, along with potentially increasing their maximum range. Combined with recent statements from North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Kim Song, claiming that denuclearization is now “off the table” in their talks with the United States, it sounds as if the bilateral talks are close to breaking down entirely.

Kim wants significant, if not total sanction relief before he’s (supposedly) willing to begin fully dismantling his nuclear weapons program. We’re not willing to lift the sanctions without seeing real progress on denuclearization. The problem is that Kim’s nuke program is the only leverage he has. It seems unlikely in the extreme that he’s going to give up his toys now.

I give President Trump full credit for at least making the effort. And relations between North and South Korea have improved significantly since all of this started. But sometimes you have to admit that you just can’t do business with a madman, and that’s precisely what Kim Jong-un is. If we have to return to the status quo, the real losers will be the North Korean people, who continue to be oppressed under the thumb of their dictator.