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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un most likely stands at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to test long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in a bid to force concessions from the U.S., an action that could trigger harsher measures by the U.S., according to experts.
"I am convinced that the North Koreans are preparing to escalate their ballistic missile testing and/or nuclear-related activities in ways that will test whether the United States is prepared to respond," said Evans Revere, a former State Department official who had negotiated with North Korea extensively.
"We should prepare ourselves for the possibility that the North Koreans will try something more ambitious in the coming weeks," he continued.
Setting the stage
After seeking sanctions relief from the U.S. for nearly a year since the failed Hanoi Summit with President Donald Trump in February, Kim may now consider pursuing other options he warned of in his New Year's Day speech, according to Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
"He is setting the stage for pursuing an alternative - when he concludes he cannot get what he wants from Trump," Manning said.
In his New Year's Day speech, Kim said if the U.S. "persists in imposing sanctions and pressure" against North Korea, it "may be compelled to find a new way."
In April, Kim gave the U.S. until the end of the year to make a "bold decision."
While testing a series of short-range missiles this summer, North Korea said it will seek a new road unless the U.S. changes its approach.
North Korean delegations walked out of the working-level talks held in Stockholm earlier this month, chastising the U.S. for the failed talks because it "has not discarded its old stance and attitude."
In the first official statement by the U.S. since the breakdown of the Stockholm talks, Randall Shriver, assistant secretary for defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs said Tuesday the U.S. will maintain pressure on North Korea because it is necessary to induce the country to "come to the table with a particular mindset." He also urged China to strengthen enforcing sanctions on North Korea.
Mount Paektu significance
On Wednesday, North Korea's official state media released pictures of Kim riding on a white horse on Mount Paektu, a place Kim is known to visit before making a big decision. According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), officials accompanying him were convinced Kim will plan "a great operation to strike the world with wonder again."
Joshua Pollack, a North Korean expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California said Kim's horseback ride on Mount Paektu "suggests that no sanctions relief is anticipated" by North Korea.
North Korea will probably "redouble their efforts to evade or undercut international sanctions," he added.
Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said, "The fact that Kim's on a white horse on Paektu means he's made a really big decision." He continued, "I suspect that this is laying the propaganda framework or groundwork for what will eventually be an announced decision on what North Korea is going to do next."
Pollack expects Kim to announce a new direction in policy in his New Year's Day speech next year.
Until then, Kim may keep the door open for a potential engagement with the U.S., according to experts, in the event Trump decides to change his mind and grant sanctions relief.
Breaking off talks
Experts said Kim's main priority in engaging with the U.S. is for sanctions relief.
"While the current array of sanctions does not threaten the existence of the regime, the burden of sanctions is substantial and is impeding economic development and modernization," Revere said. "He must find a way to get rid of sanctions. He is most likely to do this by ratcheting up tension with the United States."
Kim pointed out Wednesday while visiting township construction sites in Samjiyon County that "the situation of the country is difficult owing to the ceaseless sanctions and pressure by the hostile forces," according KCNA.
If Kim sees no hope for progress in diplomatic talks with the U.S., he may eventually break off engagement with the U.S, an action that could trigger the U.S. to consider taking tougher measures under its maximum pressure policy, according to Joseph Bosco, an East Asia expert at the Institute for Corea-American Studies (ICAS) who served at the office of the secretary of defense.
"If he seriously breaks off discussions, I think that would be a real mistake on his part because I think he will then force the Trump administration to go back to the maximum pressure campaign, which is much more than sanctions," Bosco said.
Two other pieces of the maximum pressure policy, according to Bosco, are credible use of force and threatening the legitimacy of Kim's regime.
"If there is perceived to be an imminent danger to the United States or its allies because of North Korean actions with nuclear weapons and missiles or other hostile actions, I think the use of force would be certainly on the table," Bosco said. "There are things that can be done to further question the legitimacy of Kim regime," he continued.
David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said on Wednesday that the U.S. is "trying to reassure [North Korea's] security interest" while seeking denuclearization talks.
Turning to China, Russia
Other options North Korea may consider while testing weapons is to forge stronger alliances with China and Russia that could further relax enforcing sanctions on North Korea.
"China and Russia are probably willing to ease up on sanctions enforcement to allow North Korea if they so choose to lean in that direction to get some amount of support from China and Russia who are looking to do anything they can to weaken the U.S. position in Asia," Gause said.
Bosco said, "Because of the Syria experience, it's incumbent upon the Trump administration to make very clear that our alliance commitments in Asia Indo-Pacific are as strong as ever."