North Korea’s yet-to-materialize threat of a “Christmas gift” for the United States is keeping the world on edge.
Christmas came and went with no indication of military action or even fiery rhetoric from North Korea. But U.S. officials have said they will be on high alert through New Year’s Day with the possibility the unspecified gift could be delivered at a later date.
In a sign of the global anxiety created by Pyongyang, Japanese public broadcaster NHK sent out a false alert Thursday saying North Korea had fired a missile that landed in waters east of Japan’s coastline.
Twenty-three minutes later, NHK sent out another alert saying the previous bulletin was “incorrect.” But for many North Korea watchers and those on social media, it was a very long 23 minutes.
“At this particular moment, a false alarm like this can start a war,” MIT professor Vipin Narang tweeted Thursday after apologizing for initially sharing the NHK alert.
Tensions started building earlier this month when a statement carried by North Korean state media warned it was the United States’s choice what its “Christmas gift” would be.
“What is left to be done now is the U.S. option and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get,” Ri Thae Song, a senior North Korean diplomat, said in the statement.
The statement did not specify what the gift might be, nor did it specify whether it would come exactly on Christmas Day or if the phrase “Christmas gift” was more of a rhetorical flourish.
The phrasing captured the public’s imagination and took off in U.S. and international media, with reports speculating what the gift could be.
The warning was also taken seriously, especially since it came after Pyongyang had given the U.S. a year-end deadline to soften its stance in denuclearization negotiations before North Korea would take a “new path.”
The top U.S. Air Force general in the Pacific region told reporters last week he expected the gift to be a long-range missile test.
“What I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile would be the gift. It’s just a matter of does it come on Christmas Eve, does it come on Christmas Day, does it come after the New Year,” Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces and air component commander for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said at a breakfast roundtable on Dec. 17.
Two engine tests this month at North Korea’s long-range rocket launch site that Pyongyang called “crucial” and “very important” also stoked speculation that the regime was preparing for a significant missile test.
CNN, citing an unnamed source “familiar with the North Korean leadership’s current mindset,” reported this week that the Christmas gift could be a new hardline policy against the United States rather than a missile test.
North Korea has adhered to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile tests during negotiations with the United States, though it has conducted more than a dozen-short range short-range missile tests this year.
President Trump has touted the moratorium as a sign his diplomatic efforts are working, and on Christmas Eve he vowed to “deal with” whatever North Korea has planned.
He also raised the possibility it could be a “nice” gift.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters. “Maybe it’s a nice present. Maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test.”
When Christmas Day arrived, the world was on high alert — some more seriously than others.
On Twitter, “#northkoreachristmasgift” trended Wednesday, with users making macabre jokes about a nuclear attack on the United States.
That, in turn, prompted assurances from experts not to worry.
“Seems to be many people on Twitter who think North Korea will attack America today. Please be assured that no expert or official believes the North Korea Christmas present will be an attack. It will likely be only a missile test. And not today. Enjoy your Christmas without fear,” Joe Cirincione, president of nuclear policy foundation that Ploughshares Fund, tweeted Wednesday.
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official whose work focused on the Korean peninsula, tweeted in response to the trending hashtag: “People. Calm down. You’re going to be fine.”
“Nothing is a better demonstration of how effective North Korea’s public comms tactics are than the fact that we’re all taking the notion of a ‘Christmas present’ so literally/seriously,” Oba said in another tweet.
“I’m not sure North Korea initially intended for the ‘Christmas present’ language to signify ‘expect something right on Christmas.’ Rather, they wanted to heighten the pressure of the end of year deadline in a language they knew we’d understand. But honestly, who knows,” he added.
Military aircraft monitor Aircraft Spots tweeted Wednesday about four U.S. spy aircraft flying over or near the Korean peninsula that day.
While no missile launched on Christmas, there are still two upcoming events North Korea watchers are closely monitoring.
First, North Korea has said it will hold a rare planning meeting of top officials from the ruling party before the end of the month. Analysts expect the group will make major foreign policy decisions, such as possibly ending talks with the United States.
Second, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is known to use his New Year’s Day address to make major policy announcements.
North Korea has also been known to take provocative action on days of national significance. Kim’s birthday is Jan. 8, but his is not a national holiday like those of his father and grandfather.
“I suspect we’ll continue to see provocations from #NorthKorea as Kim seeks to gain leverage in #nuclear negotiations,” Jean Lee, director of the Korea center at the Wilson Center in Washington, tweeted Wednesday. “But I don’t think he wants to completely shut the door to diplomacy. Will be monitoring Kim’s New Year’s Day speech for clarity on #NorthKorea’s direction in 2020.”