It used to be North Korea that was facing maximum pressure, not exerting it. More recently, Pyongyang conducted a second ballistic missile test in a week, escalating tensions with Washington.
With Pyongyang ramping up the pressure, Trump will eventually have to blink — one way or another. Either he returns to his policy of “maximum pressure,” threatening North Korea with potential military action if it continues missile and potentially even nuclear testing, or he agrees to reopen the topic of sanctions relief.
North Korea’s current hand is a strong one, even if the potential risks of overplaying it are very real. And Trump can likely not afford a rapid escalation of tensions that would be a tacit admission that his entire strategy towards Pyongyang has been a failure.
Washington’s two other levers for pulling on North Korea, its neighbors in China and South Korea, are also likely not feasible. China is not going to exert any pressure on Kim on Trump’s behalf in the middle of a trade war, and the North Korean leader has made it clear that he blames South Korea in part for the general worsening of relations, particularly Seoul’s decision to go ahead with recent joint military drills with the US.
Pyongyang has also gained a solid new backer: Russia. According to Michael Elleman, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a UK-based think tank with ties to the defense industry, the missiles used it Pyongyang’s recent tests “look remarkably like those of a Russian-produced Iskander.” While he said it was possible North Korea had imported the missile from elsewhere or matched the Russian design, the most likely explanation is that it bought them direct from Moscow. It is surely no coincidence that Pyongyang’s tests came off the back of Kim Jong Un’s successful first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pyongyang may also be playing a longer game. It has shown in the past that it is perfectly willing to wait out difficult US Presidents and wait for a change in leadership that will give it a chance to restart negotiations and earn more time to shore up its military capabilities. While no US leader has ever sat down with their North Korean counterpart before Trump, now that the precedent has been made, Pyongyang will know that future Presidents will not see it as such an impossible step.