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Will there be a Trump-Kim ‘October surprise’?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) shake hands with US President Donald Trump at summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (AP-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) shake hands with US President Donald Trump at summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (AP-Yonhap)
As the US presidential election approaches, North Korean watchers are looking out for an “October surprise,” a dramatic turn of events in Washington‘s relations with Pyongyang that will grab global headlines and swing the presidential race in favor of the incumbent President Donald Trump.

Some have suggested Trump could opt for another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a bid to salvage stalled nuclear talks with the North, which could give him a much-needed foreign policy win to boost his chance for reelection. Despite all the drama and “Trump-Kim chemistry” during his years in the White House, Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with the North remains unfinished business, having made little progress toward the initial aim of denuclearizing Pyongyang.

Earlier in July, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton presaged a potential summit as an “October surprise,” saying if the US president was in “deep trouble,” another meeting with “his friend” Kim Jong-un could turn things upside down.

Pyongyang, however, shot down the idea, saying the North has no intention to sit “face-to-face” with the US and be used as a “tool for grappling its political crisis.”

The prospect of a third summit between the two leaders picked up steam again this month when officials from both Seoul and Washington reiterated the need to resume the deadlocked dialogue with Pyongyang. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo additionally said Washington hopes to resume a “serious conversation” with North Korea for its complete denuclearization.

While there are needs for both Washington and Pyongyang to pursue nuclear talks, experts here told The Korea Herald a serious negotiation between the two leaders before the election is unlikely.

“The chance of another US-North Korea summit in October is almost slim to none,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Sejong Institute. “North Korea has refuted the possibility of another summit several times already, saying it gains nothing (from such an event) that will only benefit the US president as his diplomatic achievement.”

He added Washington will not go out of its way to reach out to Pyongyang, if the odds of Kim returning to the table is unlikely. “While dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, and other domestic issues concerning the US, Trump doesn’t have much time and energy to pay attention to the North.”

In what may be a sign of his lost appetite for Pyongyang, Trump left out North Korea during his address to the United Nations General Assembly this month for the first time since he began his term in 2017. Considering the US president’s track record of using the UN stage to alternatively warn or praise Pyongyang, depending on Washington’s waxing and waning relations with the North, the rare omission could attest to Trump’s change of heart, observers say.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, echoed a similar sentiment that a major diplomatic overture with North Korea is unlikely before the election, as the risks outweigh expected benefits for both sides.

“From North Korea’s perspective, there is no improvement in how Washington values what Pyongyang has proposed to exchange for sanctions relief, so it will try to coerce a better payoff after the election,” he said. “From Trump’s perspective, he already has a useful ‘October surprise’ in the form of a Supreme Court nomination battle, and his reelection campaign argues the foreign policy victory box is checked by the UAE and Bahrain’s diplomatic normalization with Israel.”

Trump and Kim have met three times beginning with their first bilateral summit in Singapore in June 2018, and have exchanged many personal letters touting their “deep and special friendship.” Their second summit in Hanoi in February last year collapsed without a deal, as the two sides failed to narrow differences on the extent of sanctions relief in return for denuclearization. The two briefly met at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in June that year, which ended up as little more than a photo op without meaningful progress.

Another such top-level meeting is unlikely, but there could still be efforts for the US to manage the North Korean situation to prevent any further provocation before the election, according to Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.

“There is just not enough time, and plus, it would be difficult for Trump to leave the US before the election. With his reelection at stake, Trump could not go for something drastic and change his stance on North Korea, such as easing sanctions.” said Park. “But the US will continue to manage the situation, with Pompeo hinting that talks are ongoing with Pyongyang behind scenes.”

In that sense, a smaller encounter between the two countries is more likely, such as the US’ suggestion of humanitarian assistance to the North, he added.

With Pompeo reportedly slated to visit South Korea in early October to meet his counterpart, all eyes are on what kind of message he will bring for Pyongyang.

But the recent killing of a South Korean government official by North Korea has dealt a blow to the already fragile inter-Korean relations and Seoul’s renewed push for reconciliation efforts, casting doubt over whether a fresh diplomatic overture could still be on the table.

Amid the heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula, others view that Pyongyang may have its own “October surprise” to deliver.

Speculation is growing that the regime could stage a military provocation to mark the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Oct. 10.

Observers believe the North will use a military parade to show off its latest development in long-range missiles, with satellite pictures indicating such a move as likely.

Starting this year, Kim has warned the world it will showcase a “new strategic weapon” in the near future, which could be an intercontinental ballistic missile or submarine-launched ballistic missile, according to experts.

“There is always a possibility for the North to unveil a new strategic weapon, and it could be a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle or SLBM. Because Pyongyang is aware that such military activities could give them some leverage over the US, whoever becomes the next president, whether it’s Trump or Joe Biden,” said Park. 

By Ahn Sung-mi (