As 2019 draws to a close, unease is growing in South Korea over US methods in dealing with North Korea, which has threatened a possible missile launch or nuclear test referred to by officials as a “ Christmas surprise ”. Scepticism has deepened over Washington’s ultimate aims for the Korean peninsula , given the pressure on Seoul to buy more US arms and increase its share of costs to keep 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea. The South is already Washington’s fourth-biggest weapons market, spending US$6.23 billion between 2009 and 2018, and recently deployed a fleet of US F-35A stealth fighter jets, a move condemned by Pyongyang as a breach of last year’s inter-Korean summit agreement. “Concerns are growing that President Donald Trump might let tension mount on the Korean peninsula in coming months while pushing South Korea to drastically increase its share of the defence burden as his success with Seoul will help him do the same with Japan and Germany as well,” said Yang Moo-jin from the University of North Korean Studies. With Trump having been impeached by the House of Representatives and facing a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate ahead of next year’s election, Yang said the US president is unlikely to be focused on a breakthrough in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles . US envoy for North Korea visits China, aiming to keep sanctions on Pyongyang “The sentiment widely shared in Seoul is that President Trump might not be so serious after all about seeking to make progress with the North, [especially] in the election year because any concessions [granted to Pyongyang] would go down badly with his conservative base,” Yang said. Trump scored political points in Washington earlier this year by saying “no deal” was better than a “bad deal” after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un collapsed in February , said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University There is a “mismatch” between North Korean and US interests, Koh said, with Pyongyang setting a year-end deadline for concessions to be made ahead of full denuclearisation, while Washington has said there is not time limit to resolve the issue. “The ‘no deadline’ message is the kind of thing that sounds good in Washington and looks like we’re keeping up good faith, but to Pyongyang, it’s another sign that the US isn’t feeling the heat of their ‘maximum pressure’ campaign – and so the pressure will rise,” said Ankit Panda of the Federation of American Scientists. PYONGYANG LOSING PATIENCE North Korea is widely expected to declare an end later this month to its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests and launching long-range missiles, giving rise to greater instability on the peninsula. Last week, it said it had successfully performed a “very important test” at its Sohae long-range launch site and days later claimed another “crucial test” had been performed at the same site, prompting speculation that these involved a new engine for either an intercontinental ballistic missile or a space launch vehicle. Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, said on Twitter there was “universal worry” among US foreign service and intelligence officials “about what North Korea will do in the coming days”. Kim Jong-un, In a demonstration of his growing frustrations, has ordered multiple launches – more than 20 according to the US military – of smaller projectiles in recent months, but Koh, of Dongguk University, doubts there will be a long-range missile launch, saying “the North is expected to confine itself to conducting ground tests of launch vehicle engines for ICBMs” instead. The “Christmas surprise” is also unlikely to be a space launch vehicle, according to Joel Wit, director of North Korea analysis website 38North, as this would take months to prepare and there were no signs at Sohae that such a launch was in the works. BEIJING’S ROLE Professor Moon Chung-in, special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in , said Trump’s strategy of imposing “maximum pressure” on the North to denuclearise – using a combination of sanctions and the threat of military force – had clearly failed. He said Pyongyang felt “betrayed” by Washington’s resumption, albeit on a reduced scale, of joint military deals with Seoul, and suggested the US consider easing some sanctions on the condition they would “snap back” into effect if the North failed to take concrete steps towards denuclearisation. Meanwhile, China , as the North’s closest and most influential ally, has stepped in to try to maintain stability on the peninsula. Stephen Biegun, US special envoy for North Korea, on Thursday went to Beijing – a stop not on his initial itinerary, which included visits to Seoul and Tokyo – to meet Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui, who urged Washington to continue talks with North Korea and “built trust” to resolve their differences. Despite speculation Biegun might visit Pyongyang afterwards, there was no confirmation on Friday such a trip had taken place. China last week introduced a joint resolution with Russia at the United Nations Security Council to lift some punitive measures Pyongyang says have crippled its economy, but this was opposed by the US. Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a fellow with the 38 North programme at the Henry L. Stimson Centre, said the American veto stemmed from already “inadequate sanctions and effective North Korean efforts at circumvention compounded by a widening gulf at the UN on everything from the content and strategic direction of sanctions to the mechanics of implementation”. China will from Monday host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s Moon, who are expected to hold talks in Beijing with President Xi Jinping before moving to Chengdu on Tuesday for discussions with Premier Li Keqiang. The North Korea issue is likely to be top of the agenda, along with discussions on a potential free trade deal. Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said North Korea’s denuclearisation would be unattainable without China’s “active role”. “Given the US-North Korea talks are at an impasse, it is now necessary to expand the bilateral forum to four-party talks involving the two Koreas and their two most important allies, the US and China”, Cheong said, adding that efforts were being made for Xi to visit Seoul next year. “Improvement in Sino-South Korea relations serves as a positive factor that will bring the North back to the table,” he said.