After a several month hiatus, the roller coaster of hope and despair that is North Korea has resumed. The decision of President Trump to meet with Kim Jong Un caught everyone, including senior administration officials, by surprise. As late as last Thursday, the White House denied that there was any plan for the two leaders to meet face to face. This recent meeting in the demilitarized zone was historic, but like the Singapore summit last year or this Hanoi summit this year, it made no headway toward the real objective of tangible steps toward the denuclearization of North Korea.
Trump continues to tout his successes with North Korea, like the return of service member remains and the release of American detainees. While these were important achievements, particularly for the families, they were not unique and each had been achieved in greater magnitude in past administrations, as was the moratorium on nuclear missile tests.
There was also no sense of imminent hostilities from North Korea until Trump initiated his “fire and fury” rhetoric and advocated a preventive military attack. During this last meeting, Kim agreed to allow his diplomats to meet with their American counterparts. That is welcome news, but it is also what had Kim promised in Singapore. After that summit, Pyongyang refused meetings for six months and then allowed discussion on only logistics for the second summit and all topics except denuclearization.
Since the Hanoi summit, North Korea had refused the repeated American and South Korean entreaties to hold diplomatic meetings. The regime has repeated its threat to take stronger measures if the United States did not soften its negotiating position. The initiative may have jump started the diplomatic process. While returning all the way back to the starting line may be proclaimed as success, it is also merely another iteration in the “Waiting for Godot” scenario typical of negotiations with North Korea.
The unconventional strategy of Trump has been no more successful than those of his predecessors. The North Korean nuclear program has not been eliminated, nor has it been reduced, as Trump has claimed. Since the Singapore summit, the regime has built another estimated six nuclear weapons and improved or expanded the production facilities for fissile material, mobile missile launchers, and nuclear warhead entry vehicles.
The diplomatic outreach that Trump has done has not been cost free. Kim has benefited from Trump constraining efforts to enforce United Nations and United States sanctions, canceling several allied military exercises, which has put deterrence and defense capabilities at risk, and blunting North Korean diplomatic isolation by embracing Kim, who according to the United Nations, is responsible for various crimes against humanity.
For all its tough talk, the “maximum pressure” policy used by the Trump administration was never maximum. It followed the examples of the Bush administration and the Obama administration by not fully implementing sanctions or enforcing American laws. Experts can debate the merits of various policies toward North Korea. But the common denominator for diplomatic failure for decades has been intransigence by Pyongyang. The regime refuses to comply with nearly a dozen United Nations resolutions that require it to unilaterally denuclearize, nor does the regime abide by the commitments it made in eight previous international agreements.
There is still no evidence Kim is any more likely than his predecessors to abandon his nuclear and missile arsenal. Despite two summits in the past year and repeated efforts at engagement, there is still not even an agreed upon definition of denuclearization. American officials have emphasized that a “big deal” and “phased implementation” are not mutually exclusive. As such, if North Korea committed to an endpoint of the United Nations definition of denuclearization and to an agreement to abandon not only its production capabilities but also its existing arsenal, then the United States may be able to lock in a freeze as a key component of a significant deal.
In continuing negotiations, the Trump administration should insist on a comprehensive roadmap to denuclearization, enforce sanctions, resume military exercises, uphold human rights, and refrain from harsh rhetoric or escalatory threats. Increased pressure combined with overt and covert information operations and willingness to talk, while maintaining strong deterrent and defense capabilities, offers the best hope for resolution. However, it is far more likely that North Korea will remain a challenge that needs a bipartisan policy of deterrence, containment, and compellence.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/2/19