After threatening President Donald Trump for weeks with a “Christmas gift,” North Korea was eerily quiet on Christmas day, as four American reconnaissance and surveillance planes circled over the country, looking for any sign of trouble.
After early progress in talks between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the effort to denuclearize North Korea has been stalling for months now, with North Korea’s ballistic missile tests paused and severe economic sanctions still in place. Kim has continued weapons tests of other platforms, including large rocket launchers, and while some have seen these tests as prodding messages meant for the Trump administration, none have really violated the handshake agreement made between the two leaders: Trump’s primary concern going into these discussions was North Korea’s newfound nuclear capability, whereas rockets and similar conventional weapons aren’t nearly as severe a threat to the U.S. or its interests abroad.
Kim, however, has repeatedly demanded that the two nations make some sort of significant progress in their talks prior to Christmas. In what seemed like a veiled threat, Kim and other senior North Korean officials repeatedly referenced a “Christmas gift” for President Trump.
“The dialogue touted by the U.S. is, in essence, nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep the DPRK bound to dialogue and use it in favor of the political situation and election in the U.S.,” Ri Thae Song, a North Korean vice foreign minister for U.S. affairs, had said. “What is left to be done now is the U.S. option — and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”
Those threats came coupled with new satellite images that suggested some of North Korea’s missile complexes are seeing renewed activity. This left many to speculate that the “gift” Kim kept alluding to could likely be a new ballistic missile test. Those fears were confirmed in the minds of some as reports leaked from North Korea that such a test was impending.
President Trump made light of the situation in comments to the press, which may have been a strategic decision, as the Pentagon had already mobilized to increase surveillance over the aggressive nation during Christmas.
“We’ll see what happens. Let’s see. Maybe it’s a nice present, maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test … you never know,” the president said.
According to the Twitter account Aircraft Spots, which tracks active aircraft transponders, the U.S. had a Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft, Northrop Grumman E-8C JTAC, RQ-4 Global Hawk armed drone and a Boeing RC-135S Cobra Ball reconnaissance aircraft flying in the vicinity of North Korea throughout Christmas day — waiting and watching for Kim’s inbound surprise that never came.
It’s hard to say exactly why nothing came out of North Korea’s threats. It’s not at all unusual for Kim Jong-un to fail to follow through on his promises of death and destruction; but having the Trump administration call his bluff on the global stage certainly hurts Kim’s negotiating position.
Then again, with days left in 2019, there remains a chance that North Korea’s Christmas gift may simply be belated.