Nicolas Ortega / for NBC News
Meanwhile, in Pyongyang’s corridors of power, Kim appears to have strengthened his hand.
He is suspected of orchestrating the assassination of his half-brother,
Kim Jong Nam, during a dramatic incident at Kuala Lumpur airport in February. On the flip side, he strengthened his inner circle in October by promoting his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to a top political post.
Some commentators point out that Kim’s short-term successes must be seen in context. Ultimately, he is the ruler of an impoverished, isolated and deeply repressive nation.
An international committee found in December that Kim and members of his regime were guilty of
10 separate war crimes, relating to North Korea’s network of gulags where thousands of people are arbitrarily tortured, raped and executed each year.
“In the larger game, the real one which counts, Trump wins just by being the leader of a wealthy, stable, normal democracy,” said Robert Kelly, an associate professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University.
“North Korea can survive, it can hang on, and the Kims will murder anyone they must in order to do so,” Kelly added. “But North Korea is no model for anyone. It enunciates no vision of the future, nor any happiness for its people. If it is still around in 20 years, it will still be the grim, unhappy barracks state it is now. That’s hardly winning.”
Those looking for American optimism in 2018 have found solace in
Trump’s comments during his November visit to Asia.
“It really makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal,” the president said during a news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“We did see a much calmer and clearer approach to North Korea,” Varriale at RUSI said of the trip. “Although there is a long way to go before this issue stops contributing to international headlines, maybe this will set the tone for a more collected 2018 policy that can contribute to risk reduction on the Korean Peninsula.”
Others see next year as an opportunity for the U.S. to make up lost strategic ground.
In November, Trump asked Congress for an additional $4 billion for missile defense on top of the initial $9.9 billion he had already requested.
“Now we’re seeing an attempt by the U.S. to play catch up,” according to Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington. “A 50-percent increase in missile defense spending in 2018, if that goes through, is pretty big.”
Any boost to this budget would likely take time to approve and implement, however, and it remains to be seen how this defensive maneuver might help neuter Kim or solve the crisis in the short term.
Also in November, Trump relisted North Korea as
a state sponsor of terror, a move that came as part of his so-called maximum pressure campaign against North Korea.
Gordon C. Chang, an author and commentator, called this campaign a “sensible plan to defang the regime” and added that “we are almost surely going to see new sanctions throughout next year.”
“Kim Jong Un has won 2017 so far,” Chang said. “The Kimster, however, should not spend too long savoring the win. Donald John Trump this year has laid the groundwork to turn the tables in 2018.”
He added: “So here’s a prediction: 2018 will not [be] so pleasant for the Kim family regime.”