Kim Jong Un’s End-of-Year Deadline Looms

Samoa’s measles crisis; a new U.S. post-INF test; “phase one” trade deal progress?

The Big One.

A new U.S.-North Korea crisis around the corner?

Image result for kim jong un sohae test

Are the United States and North Korea heading for a new round of crisis as 2020 approaches? It certainly looks that way. Familiar epithets from 2017—when the crisis between the two sides was at a high—are flying once again: “rocketman” and “dotard” of 2017 fame have made an appearance recently, from U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean state media respectively.

On December 7, the North Koreans conducted what they said was a “very important” test at their Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. Satellite imagery suggests that they tested a large rocket engine—likely one that could be used on a new intercontinental-range ballistic missile or a space launch vehicle. Following that demonstration, Trump threatened Kim Jong Un on Twitter, saying that the young leader—whom Trump once said he had fallen “in love” with—could “lose everything” if he kept going down this path.

As the final days of 2019 approach, there’s good reason to expect surprises from North Korea. For once, they’ve told us that explicitly. Kim Yong Chol, formerly North Korea’s top negotiator in diplomatic talks with the United States, said in a statement released last week that the reason North Korea has been launching missiles this year is to catch Trump’s attention. "Trump said that he will be surprised if we do a certain action ... and of course he will be. We are doing [this] to make him surprised,” Kim said. He also hinted at North Korea’s return to its old risk-acceptant ways, underscoring that Pyongyang had “nothing to lose.”

A few indicators and milestones to watch in the coming days:

  • The 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea will meet for an extraordinary fifth plenum in the latter half of the month; expect a major policy decision from Kim Jong Un at the occasion.

  • U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun is due in Seoul, South Korea.

  • South Korea’s F-35As are expected to undergo an Initial Operational Capability (IOC) ceremony—more on that below in the newsletter.

  • On January 1, Kim Jong Un will deliver his customary annual New Year’s Day address, outlining policy goals for the year ahead. 

The prospect of a significant North Korean demonstration of a qualitatively new type of military capability appears to be quite high. In an official statement, a senior North Korean foreign ministry official promised the United States a “Christmas gift.” A separate North Korean statement told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he’d soon see a “ballistic missile” (after Japan made a fuss about what North Korea felt was an ordinary multiple launch rocket system). 

Kim’s likely got at least one big surprise up his sleeve before the year ends.

In Case You Missed It: Prashanth Parameswaran and I dedicated a recent episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast to discussing the current state of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy and the likely pathways ahead in 2020. Listen here. 

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East Asia.

On December 12, markets reacted positively to news from U.S. President Donald J. Trump that progress on the so-called “phase one” U.S.-China trade agreement was coming along. The following tweet launched an optimistic day of trading, taking the Dow Jones Industrial Average to a new all-time high.

At first, I was skeptical. After all, China had remained silent about the prospective deal. That changed a few hours before this newsletter was set to go out. China’s State Council Information Office gave a briefing Friday confirm that a deal had been reached—albeit without giving too many details. Shannon Tiezzi has more details at The Diplomat.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s statement is worth reading in full. An excerpt follows.

The United States and China have reached an historic and enforceable agreement on a Phase One trade deal that requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, agriculture, financial services, and currency and foreign exchange. The Phase One agreement also includes a commitment by China that it will make substantial additional purchases of U.S. goods and services in the coming years.  Importantly, the agreement establishes a strong dispute resolution system that ensures prompt and effective implementation and enforcement.  The United States has agreed to modify its Section 301 tariff actions in a significant way.

Rising anxiety? China’s permanent representative to the United Nations has said that some form of sanctions easing for North Korea is “imperative” to “head off a dramatic reversal” of the situation between the United States and North Korea. His comments come after North Korea carried out what it said was a “very important” test at its west coast satellite launching grounds and after it said the United States would receive a “Christmas gift,” suggesting that it could potentially carry out a significant ballistic missile or space launch.


In a little noticed, but very significant story, the Pacific nation of Samoa is undergoing a major public health crisis concerning the spread of measles. 

As of Wednesday, even as 93 percent of the population had been vaccinated, total fatalities stood at 72—apparently mostly of young children.

Writing for The Diplomat’s Oceania channel, Joshua Mcdonald describes how the island country found itself in this predicament. At the core of the crisis:

One reason for the decline in the measles vaccine coverage is perhaps due to the vaccine requiring two separate doses to be most effective. WHO estimates that 86 percent of children worldwide receive their first dose, but that it drops to just 64 percent for the second dose.

In Samoa, only 31 percent of children had received the first dose of the measles vaccine, a drop from 65 percent in previous years. In contrast, the vaccination rate among other pacific nations such as Naura, Niue, and the Cook Islands is 99 percent.

Following considerable assistance from the United Nations, neighboring powers New Zealand and Australia, Samoa has been able to largely contain the crisis. To stem the spread of misinformation, authorities have arrested anti-vaccination campaigners

Bottom Line: The Pacific Island nation of Samoa is struggling to contain and stem a major measles outbreak amid a collapse in herd immunity.

South Asia.

A new report has clarified one of the lingering questions from the February 2019 skirmish between India and Pakistan: did the Pakistan Air Force’s use of U.S.-sourced F-16s violate its end-user agreement? It turns out that the answer is yes. 

According to a US News report, based on knowledge of a U.S. State Department document written this summer, Pakistan was reprimanded for using the fighters in dogfights against Indian Air Force fighters over Kashmir in the final days of February. The letter was written by Andrea Thompson, the former undersecretary of state for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Additional details:

Addressed to the head of the Pakistani air force, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, the letter began by relaying the State Department's confirmation that Pakistan had moved the F-16s and accompanying American-made missiles to unapproved forward operating bases in defiance of its agreement with the U.S. Using diplomatic language, Thompson, who has since left government, warned the Pakistanis that their behavior risked allowing these weapons to fall into the hands of malign actors and "could undermine our shared security platforms and infrastructures."

For those of you rusty on the details of what exactly transpired between India and Pakistan, here’s a brief refresher. After a devastating vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack against Indian paramilitary personnel that claimed more than 40 lives on February 14, the Indian government, early on the morning of February 26, carried out airstrikes on Pakistani soil, hitting what it said was a terrorist encampment at the Pakistani town of Balakot. The target group was Jaish-e-Mohammed, which had claimed responsibility for the attack (which was carried out by an Indian Kashmiri boy).

Following the Indian strikes, which Pakistan denied hit any meaningful targets, the Pakistani military readied for retaliation. The next day, the Pakistan Air Force struck military targets in India. Indian fighters pursued Pakistani fighters and faced Pakistan’s F-16s, which fired the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, and successfully shot down an Indian MiG-21 Bison in the process. The pilot of that Indian MiG survived the dogfight and was captured by Pakistan; eventually his release allowed for deescalation

The United States mostly played a behind-the-scenes role in deescalating the crisis—which was taking place while President Trump was meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. News of the letter from Thompson, thus, represents the clearest sign that Washington was concerned about Pakistan’s use of American F-16s.

Bottom Line: A new report sheds light on how the United States viewed Pakistan’s use of its F-16s during the Balakot crisis in February 2019.

In Case You Missed It: India’s Citizenship Amendment Bill has passed both houses of parliament and has led to major protests in Assam. This read, from LiveMint, gets at the fundamentals of the fault lines that have now been exposed.


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Asia Defense.

A few notable updates on defense issues in this edition of the newsletter.

A second nail in the INF coffin. On December 12, the United States carried out the test of a new ground-launched ballistic missile—the second test of a capability that was prohibited by the now-defunct 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, “The test missile exited its static launch stand and terminated in the open ocean after more than 500 kilometers of flight. Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.” Video is available here:

[Bonus: In the most recent issue of The Diplomat’s magazine, I take a deep dive into how strategic elites and policymakers in Tokyo are thinking about the post-INF Treaty environment in Asia in a U.S.-Japan alliance context. Read more here.]

Indo-Pacific staffing change: Randy Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense, has resigned his position and will leave his post at the end of December. Schriver, a well-regarded Asia expert and a strong proponent of U.S.-Taiwan ties, was instrumental in the administration’s thinking about Indo-Pacific security issues.

South Korea’s F-35A IOC: My colleague Franz-Stefan Gady draws attention to the impending Initial Operating Capability (IOC) certification of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s fleet of F-35A Panther stealth fighters. An official ceremony should take place later this month. Expect North Korea, which has lashed out this year at South Korea’s procurement of these fighters, which are effectively invisible to Pyongyang’s obsolete early warning capabilities, to make noise.

How many Chinese carriers? Over at our Asia Defense channel, Steven Stashwick takes a look at reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy could stop its carrier ambitions at four ships instead of the more commonly heard six. Stashwick writes that “If this is true, it appears to have been a rapid change in the PLA Navy’s strategic direction.” The cause of the change in plans is reportedly technical and not political.


2020 is almost here! To commemorate the end of 2019, my podcast co-host Prashanth Parameswaran reflected on the year gone by in Asian geopolitics. Each of us presents three themes or trends that we feel are the most significant from this year. If you’re an iOS or Mac user, you can also subscribe to The Diplomat’s Asia Geopolitics podcast on iTunes here; if you use Windows or Android, you can subscribe on Google Play here, or on Spotify here.

This newsletter is written by Ankit Panda, senior editor for The Diplomat, and director of research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.