Back in March of last year, the Kim Jong Un regime told a group of South Korean special envoys that it was willing to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and normalization of its relations with the US. According to the interlocutors, Pyongyang also promised that it would refrain from conducting further missile and nuclear tests so long as its prospective talks with Washington continued.
That pledge was apparently intended to lock Washington into negotiations until the Kim regime got what it wanted. But the US has flipped the script, as it now appears that North Korea is the one bound to a negotiation process that can only move forward when Washington’s demands are met.
If Pyongyang follows through on its recent threats to walk away from the negotiations and resume testing of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, it will destroy any chance it has of obtaining sanctions relief, and its actions could trigger a new round of international sanctions. On the other hand, Pyongyang is unlikely to get sanctions lifted via the negotiations unless and until it offers up unprecedented concessions on denuclearization.
Eventually, the US and North Korea will need to reach a compromise that will allow them to advance their negotiations. But US President Donald Trump’s administration would be well advised to exercise patience and give Pyongyang time to consider how far it is willing to go to obtain sanctions relief.
US disarms North Korea … figuratively
The North Korean regime has for decades argued that the US poses an existential threat and that Washington’s “hostile policies” are the primary obstacle to achieving a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
Over the past year, the Trump administration has methodically dismantled that argument by demonstrating extraordinary flexibility on US policies and practices that Pyongyang has deemed offensive, leaving the Kim regime with little more than procedural objections to denuclearization (Pyongyang insists that the sanctions on North Korea must be eased before it will take any meaningful steps towards relinquishing its nuclear weapons).
President Trump – against the advice of many foreign-policy experts and even some in his own administration – has bent over backwards to build a strong personal relationship with Kim Jong Un. He has made the sort of respectful gestures that North Korea’s rulers have long wanted from a US leader, but which previous US presidents refrained from making for fear of diminishing their leverage over Pyongyang and legitimizing a brutal dictatorship.
If such personal attention and kind words weren’t enough to convince Kim and his cronies that the US bears them no ill will, top US officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his predecessor Rex Tillerson, and former secretary of defense Jim Mattis all stated explicitly that the US does not seek regime change in North Korea. And Washington has backed up its words with actions.
After his first summit with Kim last June, Trump unilaterally suspended major US-South Korean joint military exercises, which he described in North Korean propaganda terms as “very provocative” and costly “war games.” The US president also expressed his desire to someday remove all 28,500 US troops from South Korea – something that Pyongyang has occasionally demanded.
Furthermore, statements made by US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun during a January 31 speech indicated that Trump was prepared to offer Kim a long-coveted end-of-war declaration, possibly at their second summit in Hanoi.
In addition to its individual efforts, the Trump administration has worked with US ally South Korea to accommodate Pyongyang where possible. For instance, the US military last year heeded Seoul’s call to suspend its bomber flights over the Korean Peninsula in order to create a better environment for the ongoing diplomatic negotiations with the North. Washington also voiced its support for joint efforts between North and South Korea to remove landmines and guard posts along the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries.
And although the US is wary of prematurely easing sanctions on North Korea, Washington acceded to Seoul’s requests for sanctions exemptions that permitted the two Koreas to carry out preliminary work for a planned inter-Korean railway project this past winter.
Ever since North Korea agreed to discuss denuclearization and normalization of its relations with the US, the Trump administration’s general message to Pyongyang has been that anything is possible if it chooses denuclearization.
By meeting with Kim Jong Un and suspending major US-South Korean military exercises, President Trump has already demonstrated to the North Korean leader that he is willing to do things that no US president has done before. Almost as important, he has shown Beijing, Seoul and other parties critical to the North Korea denuclearization efforts that he is giving diplomacy a fair shot.
Now, if Pyongyang follows through on its threats to walk away from its negotiations with the US or takes any provocative actions, it faces the strong possibility that Washington will be able to rally support for additional international sanctions, thanks to Trump’s good-faith efforts to meet Pyongyang halfway and address its security concerns.
Alternatively, if North Korea remains in the negotiations but refuses to soften its stance on denuclearization significantly, existing sanctions will continue to act as a brake on its economic growth. Interminable economic headwinds are something that Pyongyang would certainly like to avoid, especially since Kim announced last spring that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea would henceforth devote all of its efforts to socialist economic construction.
History has shown that there is no limit to the pain that the Kim regime will subject its people to if it believes that its own survival is at stake. But the Trump administration has spent the past year trying to convince Pyongyang that the choice it faces is not between survival and collapse, but between a wonderful, dynamic future and its dismal, languid present.
It is impossible to say what impact Trump and his administration have had on Kim Jong Un’s thinking. Whatever the North Korean leader decides to do next to try to extricate his country from its current predicament will, however, speak volumes about his ambitions, his fears, and his relationship with the US president.
Given time and the pressure of the current sanctions regime, Washington can eventually find out if Kim’s desire to build his country into a prosperous, respected state outweighs his fears of regime collapse and the loss of prestige and security that scaling back his country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs would entail.