The North Koreans never really believed the US offer to lift sanctions in return for stopping its arms program. They had no reason to. They witnessed how the US withdrew from the deal with Iran and its impact on Iran. The second factor is the volatile nature of US foreign policy. President Trump's temperament influences almost all US relationships with world leaders. For example, he recently snubbed Putin at the climate summit, while warming up to the Saudi leadership at a time when the Khashoggi murder is under investigation. Also, Trump’s National Security Strategy Policy clearly considers North Korea as a threat.

The document puts the country in the same category as Iran.

North Korea is a tiny country with a powerful deterrent against a giant. That giant is the United States. Kim Jong probably thought and acted on this thought - "both our neighbors – South Korea and China share a great friendship with the US. We never know when they will turn against us. So, let’s be careful."

US military presence in the Korean peninsula

There is a basis to North Korean fears. The US has 15 bases in South Korea, out of which one is inactive. Fifteen military bases is a large number for any country, let alone a tiny country like the South Korean peninsula. While they offer a strategic advantage to the US, letting it keep an eye on China, Japan, South China seas, and Asia - they are an expensive proposition.

Not only does the US invest in infrastructure and maintenance, but it also positions more than 28,000 troops in these bases. That is more than two percent of South Korea’s 600,000 strong armed forces. Together, they offer a threat to North Korea, which cannot rely either on China or Russia for support in case of war.

North Korea is very isolated from international politics.

It is not protected from opportunistic attacks by the US or China. The question is, will a beleaguered Trump government choose the path of sanctions and covert warfare over North Korea’s belligerence or will it continue to negotiate a peace deal?

North Korea’s strategy is astute. It has managed a prolonged negotiation with its southern counterpart and managed to get China and Russia to drop some sanctions while it kept the US talking.

While the US maintains that it is in no rush to drop sanctions against North Korea, the Koreans are hopeful. One good outcome is that the Korean Peninsula which was at a nuclear flashpoint in 2017 is now witnessing a modicum of peace.

Is peace still elusive in the region?

2017 was punctuated with Pyongyang’s nuclear and other missile tests. There were six in all, which led to the ratification of sanctions against Korea at the UN. North Korea had to be starved of essentials in order to make them negotiate. Recently, CNN reported that new satellite imagery reveals that North Korea continues with its missile development program. Post a tentative peace deal, it may have partially destroyed a nuclear facility as per peace requirements, but the North has not stopped their arms exploration program.

Is North Korea simply buying time while it keeps its missile program afloat? Is it justified as the US has not signed the no first use policy for nuclear weapons? Not signing this policy gives the US the option of making a nuclear strike first and not in retaliation. China, however, has signed the policy of no first use. In the event of the US using a nuclear warhead on Pyongyang, will China ally with North Korea and retaliate? After all, a nuclear strike on the Korean peninsula will affect China the most.

According to Newsweek, Russia has started using laser weapons in active combat. With the US-Russia deteriorating relationships, North Korea may have an ally in Russia. What possible role will Russia play in the eventuality of a breakdown of negotiations between the US and North Korea?

The US on their part will keep Kim talking until he gives in to their demands or until they take him down.

What will USA’s foreign relations focus on in the next few years of Trump Administration?

The US strategy is more or less like a strategy to deal with hostage takers or hijackers. Yet, logical indications are that the talks will be futile and continue until hostilities break out. In the current scenario, the US may not go to war, as several hotspots across the world witness its concentrated action. The US is likely to spend more resources in the Middle East, where it may assist Saudi Arabia and the UAE in action against Iran. Saudi Arabia’s growing relationship with Israel has won friends in the US.

The US does not oppose their action in Yemen and provides support against Houthi rebels and Iran’s Red Guard. The US interest in Afghanistan has waned. On the domestic front, the US has managed to contain South America and immigration issues. US attention in the South China Sea is high and a key reason for its bases in South Korea.

It is safe to conclude that the USA will not invite hostilities on the Korean peninsula as that will divide their attention. According to The Sun, Pyongyang talked tough again after the US slapped fresh sanctions due to human rights violations. The next few months will witness many such acrimonious issues amid a continued dialogue between the Koreas and the US. As the Koreans continue with growing military might, the US makes no move to lift sanctions.