Personal diplomacy has its place, but working level officials need to be more involved in the next attempt. File photo shows US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during their historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

The assumption that President Joe Biden – if that is what we Americans get – will revert to pre-2017 policies toward North Korea is surely mistaken. Too much has changed in four years. 

North Korea poses a more credible nuclear threat than it did then. US-China relations have hardened in ways that make those two countries look for competitive advantage rather than cooperation.

South Korea has become heavily invested in engagement with North Korea, and high-level diplomatic engagement has been tried. 

Remember that the point of “maximum pressure” was to bring the North Koreans to the negotiating table. They’ve been there. Now, what? Even a second Trump term would have to face that question.

The advancing North Korean weapons program suggests there is no advantage to waiting for Kim Jong Un to take the diplomatic initiative. Denuclearization should remain an objective, but it will take time to achieve.

Meanwhile, the US administration can take other useful steps along the way that reduce Pyongyang’s criminality and nudge North Korea toward being a more normal state.

It’s hard to fault President Donald Trump for having tried personal diplomacy. His belief in his personal powers of persuasion and “only I can fix it” approach were a good fit for negotiating with a country in which only one opinion matters. 

Agree to a process

No matter what the process, Kim Jong Un would have had to be there at the end. 

At the same time, Trump-Kim summitry started from a disadvantaged position by being conducted under the cloud of previous diplomatic disappointments. Moreover, denuclearization agreements are too complex for a top-down approach.

It’s not enough to leave it to subordinates to “fill in the details,” when the details are almost all that matters. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran is more than 150 pages long, with five annexes.  

Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a summit meeting held in Vietnam, February 2019 Photo: AFP

The best that could have come out of the Singapore and Hanoi summits would have been an agreement on a process, not a deal. 

The question was not whether Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un trusted each other, but whether they trusted their own bureaucracies to hammer out an agreement. That would have required entrusting negotiators to make concessions as well as to make demands.

Role of summits 

The next round with North Korea, if there is one, must involve serious working-level engagement. The role of summits should be to ratify agreements, not to negotiate them.

Regarding substance, the negotiating framework of denuclearization in exchange for lifting sanctions was always too narrow to succeed. There is near consensus among experts that North Korea will not totally and verifiably dispose of its nuclear capabilities any time soon under any conditions. 

For North Korea, nuclear weapons are a long-sought core national asset. 

That is not to say that denuclearization is not a realistic long-term goal. Nuclear weapons are expensive to maintain, are difficult to protect and safeguard and lead other countries to develop counter-measures. North Korea has stated for years that it intends to denuclearize eventually. 

The US and South Korea should maintain the goal of denuclearization, work toward it and cap nuclear development along the way, but making impossible demands of North Korea should not get in the way of making useful, tension-reducing, progress.

If complete and verifiable North Korean denuclearization should not be the immediate point of negotiations, neither should be the lifting of sanctions. While the US has been consistent in its demand for denuclearization, North Korea has run hot and cold on sanctions lifting, sometimes stating that it is less important than “an end to hostile policies.” 

Those policies seem to include US-ROK military exercises, criticism of North Korea’s human-rights record and UN Security Council Resolutions that take Pyongyang to task for its various treaty violations and illicit activities.

It is not clear what Kim Jong Un wants beyond restating the obvious: that he wants the Kim family regime to remain in control. Pressing beyond that, are there international security guarantees that would satisfy North Korea’s deep insecurity? 

Does acceptance in the international community matter? Does the North really want détente with its overwhelmingly more successful rival, South Korea? North Korea itself may not know what it wants. 

What North Korea needs

The one certainty is that North Korea needs economic growth. Although it has shown occasional, anecdotal signs of improvement, the North Korean economy has been moribund for years, going beyond the impact of sanctions, and now it’s been damaged further by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Its level of malnourishment has been persistent. Its patterns of trade have shown sanctions evasion rather than innovation or restructuring. Its energy and transportation infrastructures have eroded. Despite the high proportion of its workforce devoted to agriculture, it cannot produce enough food to feed itself. 

North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and veneer of smartphones and vacation resorts have obscured the fact that its economy is fundamentally broken. Its limited experiments in market economics have given North Korea signs of life, but they may have reached the limits of Kim’s tolerance for uncontrolled economic activity.

North Korean vendors in a Pyongyang street scene in a file photo. Image: AFP

Lifting sanctions on North Korea would only serve to highlight that its economic weakness is of its own making. There are no investors clamoring for an opportunity to invest in a system that provides no guarantees that contracts will be honored. 

There are few markets eagerly awaiting North Korean products. Global commodity markets are depressed.

What North Korea needs are systemic reform and creditworthiness. What it could use in the meantime is humanitarian assistance aimed at improving the lives of the impoverished North Korean people. 

Offering systemic reform and humanitarian assistance in a way that Kim Jong Un would find unthreatening is a problem that would call for technical expertise, tact and persistence. It is not the stuff of quick fixes or flashy headlines.

‘Strategic patience’ won’t help

What should be the policy choice for a potential Biden administration? A policy of strategic patience – although that was never official US policy – would only create time for North Korea to develop further a nuclear arsenal and to become more economically brittle, in all likelihood leading to an even more dangerous future crisis. 

Those twin problems of North Korea’s military threat and a faltering North Korean economy require a different approach. 

Denuclearization should remain a genuine, but realistically distant, goal. In the meantime, negotiated caps on nuclear development should be accompanied by other threat-reducing steps including conventional arms talks and an invitation for North Korea to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. 

People watch a television news program showing file footage of a North Korean missile test at a railway station in Seoul on January 1, 2020. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

That would not be a heavy lift. North Korea is one of only four countries not to have signed the CWC. It would introduce North Korea to the CWC’s light-touch inspection regime, paving the way for eventual nuclear verification. Assistance to North Korea’s chemical industry could provide a relevant incentive for it to sign the CWC.

The project of salvaging North Korea’s economy would require an international effort. The last thing Kim Jong Un wants is for American, or Chinese, companies to gain control of North Korean assets. The magic of the marketplace sounds to him more like regime suicide. 

A new approach

What might work instead is for a coalition of countries that have had success, such as Vietnam and Mongolia, to provide advice to North Korea on how to introduce commercial law, land reform and banking services in digestible bites.

This could be done within the framework of the United Nations Economic and Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), to which North Korea already belongs. 

What should the United States and South Korea ask of North Korea if not solely denuclearization? Much could be accomplished through simple lawfulness and transparency. 

An end to North Korea’s state-sponsored cyber-criminality would be a reasonable ask in exchange for economic assistance. So would access to North Korea’s state budget numbers. 

Humanitarian assistance should be predicated on allowing the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program to evaluate the facts on the ground. And what excuse can North Korea have for not allowing visits by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights? 

None of this will work unless Pyongyang is willing to negotiate and to compromise. But there is no advantage to waiting for North Korea to take the initiative. The first step a Biden administration should take is to appoint a negotiator and invite Kim Jong Un to name a counterpart. Then, the hard work can begin.

Mark Tokola is a retired American diplomat and current vice-president of the Korean Economic Institute in Washington, DC.

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Mark Tokola

Mark Tokola is vice-president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, DC. He retired from the US Foreign Service in 2014 after a 38-year career. He served as director of the Iraq Transition Assistance Office in Baghdad from 2007-2008. Tokola received the US State Department’s Superior Honor Award for his work on implementing the Dayton Peace Accords while serving as political counselor in Sarajevo from 1997-1999.