The November 28 test-firing of a “super large” multiple-rocket launcher and this Saturday’s “very important” test at a satellite-launching site – accompanied by recent ultimatums and criticism of Washington’s negotiating style – indicate frustration by the Kim Jong Un regime that relief from US sanctions has not been forthcoming. It also shows that US President Donald Trump’s administration is pursuing a measured and deliberate approach that protects both US and allied interests amid North Korean provocations.
Well known is Pyongyang’s disappointment with Trump’s views on the needed scope of denuclearization and its link to possible sanctions relief. Statements by North Korean officials have derided Washington’s “Cold War mentality” while threatening a return to 2017, when Pyongyang conducted a series of missile launches, among them an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that many analysts believe is capable of striking the US mainland.
This has led to former North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Yong Chol and veteran diplomat Kim Kye Gwan accusing the US of engaging in “crafty and vicious” negotiating tactics and holding “ideological prejudice,” and threatening repercussions if Washington does not meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s imposed year-end deadline for progress in the talks.
These developments point to Kim’s dashed expectations from his prior meetings with Trump, indicating surprise and disappointment from a failure to exact concessions from Washington as his father Kim Jong Il did masterfully with past US administrations.
Additionally, Pyongyang’s recent behavior points to how its lack of progress in the talks amounts to a personal loss of face for Kim – in particular, the sudden end to the Hanoi summit. Each of these experiences has left Kim empty-handed and without sanctions relief.
While Washington may view Kim’s unilaterally imposed year-end deadline for progress in the talks as artificial, some North Korea watchers believe that Kim is insistent upon this deadline, as it sits on the heels of his regime’s five-year strategy for the state’s economic development from 2016 to 2020.
Unfortunately for Kim, economic development of this scale can only be realized if Washington ceases its economic sanctions. Trump’s hard line of insisting on denuclearization concessions before sanctions relief has put Kim in a bind.
As some have noted, Kim might be betting that the current election-campaign season in the US could be an opportune time to create a crisis for Trump. According to this theory, Kim’s calculus may be that launching an ICBM or conducting a nuclear test – either of which Trump has publicly said is a red line for him – may force the US administration to engage in partial sanctions relief in order to ease tensions during the campaign, making him look weak as he runs for re-election.
Such a gambit on the part of Kim may backfire politically if Trump uses the crisis as justification to ramp up military assets and pressure on North Korea, rally patriotic sentiment behind him and work to project an image of a proactive, strong commander-in-chief.
Such a development could make it difficult for Trump’s Democratic challenger in next year’s presidential election to criticize his actions without coming across as being unpatriotic.
By most counts, chances of an agreement with North Korea on denuclearization are unlikely, in part because of the high asks coming out of Pyongyang. Kim has been intractable with his demands on the lifting of economic sanctions prior to his regime taking concrete and verifiable denuclearization measures. This has been accompanied by repeated demands for the withdrawal of the US military from South Korea, Japan, Guam and Hawaii.
It may be that the best Washington will achieve is a nuclear North Korea that is on speaking terms with the White House after an arrangement of partial sanctions relief for partial disarmament of the country. While such an outcome is far from optimal, it could serve as a starting point for improved relations over the long term, fostering a relationship in which Pyongyang and Washington can work together in select areas. Such an arrangement, possibly, could begin a process of lessening Beijing’s heavy influence and control over Pyongyang.
Any talks with a recalcitrant regime like North Korea will have ups and downs, and there are risks and costs to drawn-out diplomacy with Pyongyang. Over multiple US administrations, Pyongyang has mastered the art of watering down demands from Washington as talks drag on over the course of weeks, months and even years.
Ultimately, if North Korea and the US are unable to come to agreeable terms in their negotiations, Trump must be willing to settle for a sustained policy of sanctions, containment and deterrence with overwhelming military capabilities, all while leaving the door open for talks.
Trump appears cognizant of this reality. Signs indicate that his administration is on guard for the strategic deception commonly engaged by the Kim dynasty during negotiations.
Trump’s saying no to Pyongyang’s excessive demands and maintaining the “maximum pressure” campaign clearly frustrates Kim and leaves him with limited options. This balanced approach puts Trump in the driver’s seat of the talks (for now), allowing him to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula from a position of strength.