North Korea and the United States gave strikingly different interpretations of the collapse of working-level denuclearization talks. Pyongyang repaid President Donald Trump’s walk-out from the February 2019 Hanoi summit by rejecting the U.S.’s revised offer in Stockholm. The State Department, by contrast, claimed the two sides had good discussions in Stockholm.
Pyongyang characteristically took a maximalist approach, both in its rhetoric and its demands. Having commanded the U.S. to adopt a totally “new method of calculation,” the regime disparaged Washington’s new proposals. North Korean negotiator Kim Myong-gil declared that denuclearization is possible only after the cessation of all U.S.–South Korean joint military exercises—which Pyongyang claims President Trump already promised during earlier meetings with Kim—and removal of U.N. economic sanctions.
When asked which sanctions Pyongyang would like to see lifted first, North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song replied: “All the sanctions.” Pyongyang’s insistence on sanctions relief runs counter to its post-Hanoi summit statements that dismissed sanctions as a concern while emphasizing that the U.S. must provide a security guarantee to the regime.
The Trump Administration provided a much more optimistic spin on the meeting, rebuffing North Korea’s assertion that it had not provided a new proposal. A State Department spokesperson commented that “the U.S. brought creative ideas and…previewed a number of new initiatives that would allow us to make progress in each of the four pillars of the Singapore joint statement.”
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said, “We came with a set of ideas,” and President Trump suggested last month that an unspecified “new method” could help move the stalled negotiations forward. Pre-Stockholm meeting media reporting suggested that the Trump Administration was considering partial sanctions relief in return for incremental denuclearization steps.
Storm Clouds on the Horizon. Pyongyang dismissed U.S. eagerness to resume talks in two weeks, declaring it had “no intention to hold such ‘sickening negotiations’” before the U.S. takes substantial steps to end its hostile policy. Nuclear negotiator Kim Myong-gil cautioned that without significant U.S. policy changes, the bilateral engagement “may immediately come to an end for good” and depicted the situation on the Korean Peninsula as precariously “at the crossroads of dialogue or confrontation.”
Kim Myong-gil warned that, if the U.S. does not respond appropriately, “horrible disasters” could occur and ominously warned that the regime maintaining its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests depends entirely on U.S. actions. Subsequent to the Stockholm meeting, North Korea referenced a recent U.S. ICBM test and warned that it could “give tit for tat” but, at least for the moment, the regime thought it premature to do so. Throughout the year, Pyongyang affirmed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s admonition that regime patience only lasts until the end of the year when the prospect of settling issues becomes “gloomy and very dangerous.”
Who Is in the Driver’s Seat? Some dismiss North Korea’s acerbic comments as diplomatic maneuvering and indeed, the regime often engages in brinksmanship to wrest additional concessions from opponents. But underlying the tactical maneuvering are enduring North Korean strategic objectives to maintain its nuclear arsenal. The regime has declared that it “will never barter the strategic security of the country for sanctions relief.”
President Trump declared that “the best thing that’s happened to this country” during his Administration was his “very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.” But this relationship has not produced any progress on denuclearization. Despite repeated claims by Secretary Pompeo that Kim Jong-un agreed to complete denuclearization, the two sides have yet to even agree on a definition of “denuclearization” or the “Korean Peninsula.” North Korea continues to expand and refine its nuclear and missile arsenal.
Some argue, incorrectly, that there has been no cost to President Trump’s approach. However, that neglects the large U.S. sanctions relief, cancellation of numerous military exercises, and embrace of a purveyor of crimes against humanity, which undercut all components of the maximum pressure policy. The U.S. also accepted 21 North Korean violations of U.N. resolutions this year without any response or repercussions to the regime. President Trump has now adopted a weaker version of the Obama Administration’s strategic patience policy and timid incrementalism of sanctions enforcement.
North Korea’s reticence to working-level meetings reflects its desire to deal only with President Trump. The President’s dismissal of National Security Advisor John Bolton was taken as portending a softening of U.S. policy. Bolton’s departure removed the strongest proponent for a U.S. preventive attack if North Korea conducts a successive ICBM test as well as the biggest constraint to an incomplete deal that prematurely reduces pressure prior to real denuclearization.
Despite the setback in the February 2019 Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un may feel he has the upper hand in negotiations. Pyongyang publicly referenced the 2020 presidential election and may hold threats of resuming nuclear and ICBM tests as a Damocles sword over President Trump’s head to induce additional concessions.
What Washington Should Do
Though there is little reason for optimism, the U.S. should continue diplomatic attempts to reduce the North Korean nuclear threat. But the Trump Administration should not become overeager to accept a weak, flawed agreement.
The U.S. should:
- Insist on a detailed, comprehensive road map to denuclearization. Any future agreement must include an unambiguous and public North Korean commitment to abandoning its nuclear and missile production capabilities and existing arsenals. The accord should clearly delineate necessary actions by all parties, linkages to benefits to be provided, sequencing, and timelines for completion.
- Require a robust verification protocol in any agreement, including data declarations of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and arsenal, provisions for the dismantlement of those facilities, and destruction of the regime’s arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. There should be inspections and long-term monitoring of declared facilities, as well as the right to conduct short-notice challenge inspections of non-declared facilities.
- Announce it will resume canceled military exercises with South Korea and more fully implement sanctions if Pyongyang continues to drag its feet on complying with U.N. denuclearization requirements. America’s self-imposed concessions did not lead to diplomatic progress nor reduce the North Korean military threat.
While the U.S. should continue to strive for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear threat, it is more likely that North Korea will remain a threat that requires a bipartisan policy of deterrence, containment, and compellence. The best policy for the U.S. is a comprehensive strategy of diplomacy, upholding U.N. resolutions and U.S. laws, and deterrence until the nuclear, missile, and conventional force threat is reduced.
Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.