Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was tasked with the same mission his predecessors failed to achieve: to find a way to sequence concrete North Korean denuclearization steps with corresponding concessions from the United States that reflects security needs of both states. Forecasted by a watered-down joint statement in June, by next week we may know whether North Korea is on its way to being inducted in the nuclear club.
The sequencing problem attempts to narrowly avoid two key risks on opposite sides of a spectrum. For U.S. negotiators, a premature normalization of relations and relaxation of sanctions without corresponding steps towards disarmament risks sliding toward de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power. On the other hand, inflexible demands for a robust pace of denuclearization and a lasting incentive structure for compliance risk dissolving diplomacy and re-surfacing tension.
Kim Jong Un’s strategy will seek to avoid conceding his nuclear assets too early (if ever) and risking both internal and external insecurity. Yet he must demonstrate to Trump and the international community through a declaration, verification, and dismantlement regime his genuine commitment to denuclearization to prevent a return to a hostile U.S. policy.
How can the two parties sequence meaningful steps towards these goals while hedging against their respective risks? It has never been done.
The North Korea policy discord between Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush was born from a fundamental disagreement on how to sequence the establishment of a peace regime with concrete steps towards denuclearization. Whereas Roh sought reconciliation with the North as a necessary precursor to denuclearization, Bush regarded peace regime-building talks only as a possible outcome of denuclearization. Bush’s hardline stance elevated pressure on the Kim regime to denuclearize but smothered space for diplomacy.
Although at the current juncture President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has agreed to back the U.S. to conduct nuclear negotiations, this same sequencing pathway must now find the confidence of Kim Jong Un and his benefactor, Xi Jinping.
The June 12 joint statement stated that President Trump “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK” and Chairman Kim Jong Un “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization.” It is still unknown how both parties plan to materialize these vaguely agreed commitments and many still doubt the two positions are reconcilable. But if they are, it is the temporal dimension of these commitments that remains unspecified yet vital for the two distrusting parties to hedge their risks as they implement the agreement.
Upon multiple visits to China this year Kim has reversed the growing distance between the two leaders since their respective ascents to power in 2011 and 2013. By consolidating the strategic relationship with Xi, Kim now has a backer who also supports his preferred “phased, synchronized” steps toward denuclearization. In contrast, the United States has long demanded that the North quickly relinquish its nuclear assets, fearing a closing window to deny a deliverable ICBM capability but also to avoid prematurely lifting sanctions that would reduce Kim’s incentive to completely denuclearize and amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state.
Denuclearization is further complicated by suggestions that both sides refer to very different arrangements when they commit to denuclearization. The North Koreans have long sought the denuclearization of the entire peninsula, but the 1992 Joint Declaration suggests a focus on American nuclear assets and guarantees. The Cold War’s end and a fading Soviet threat permitted George H.W. Bush to remove tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in an attempt to dissuade the North from seeking a nuclear counterbalance. In 2018 Kim Jong Un has achieved this counterbalance and he will likely utilize his strategic alignment with Xi Jinping to secure long-sought strategic goals: the removal of the American nuclear umbrella over Korea and troops stationed on the peninsula.
History is against President Trump’s vow to guarantee Kim’s security when he has reneged on the Iran nuclear agreement and every four-year period can usher in a radically new approach to U.S. foreign policy. Qaddafi witnessed a sequence of accelerated nuclear disarmament, then a U.S.-led invasion, then assassination and civil war. Ukraine witnessed accelerated nuclear disarmament followed eventually by a Russian invasion and ongoing occupation. In contrast, nobody with a nuclear button has ever been dethroned or even denied nuclear status acceptance once capabilities were demonstrated.
If Kim Jong Un is banking on a rapprochement with the United States as a precursor to acceptance of its nuclear status — as occurred with China and every other nuclear state — he may be on the right track. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert last week refuted suspicions of a change to the long-held U.S. policy stance of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) when the department shifted script to “the final, fully verified denuclearization of (North Korea) as agreed to by Chairman Kim.”
The U.S. intelligence community has suddenly leaked knowledge that North Koreans have boosted uranium enrichment at secret facilities in recent weeks and 38 North reported infrastructure advances to a plutonium production plant at Yongbyon. In light of these events and an anticlimactic joint statement in June, Pompeo returned without a commitment towards concrete, sequenced steps towards CVID. As a result of this, the Trump administration’s approach to CVID risks losing credibility and triggering allegations of feigned progress up until midterm elections.
It is also important to remember that while the current diplomatic opening required a concerted effort by all the key Northeast Asian stakeholders, their divergent priorities and interests will make it difficult to coordinate outcomes.
The Moon Jae-in administration, emboldened by his party’s recent overwhelming success in local elections and record-high public support, plans to fundamentally transform the relationship between the Koreas by linking their energy, logistics, and tourism economies in a Sunshine era-esque vision that only awaits the green light from the U.S.-led international sanctions regime. Moon’s priorities for peace, reconciliation, and inter-Korean exchange will pressure Trump to acquiesce to easing sanctions early on to keep diplomacy moving forward—regardless of its impact on eventual denuclearization.
China similarly prioritizes peace and stability to denuclearization and has already taken the initiative to curb the international pressure campaign by proposing relaxation sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations Security Council. Further, Trump has consistently utilized the threat of sanctions on the Chinese economy to pressure compliance with the maximum pressure regime against North Korea. The Trump administration’s first round of $34 billion worth of China tariffs just kicked in and it remains to be seen how the two leaders will manipulate the future linkage of trade and North Korea denuclearization as their strategic rivalry matures.
A drawdown of sanctions is required for the North Korean leader to secure himself at home by delivering on the Byungjin promise. Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin policy recognized the faults of his father’s “military-first” psyche and embraced marketization and development while continuing the nuclear pursuit, reaffirming the centrality of the military and appeasing the Pyongyang elites with economic progress. This binary goal can only be achieved by manipulating the sequence of a negotiated deal to achieve the momentum of economic growth while retaining a sufficient nuclear arsenal.
The sequencing problem requires coordination between the U.S., China, and Korea to pressure meaningful steps from Kim before sanctions are relaxed, but the current alignment of political forces—a new paradigm of cooling U.S.-China relations, a progressive South Korean administration and public, and an American populist president are laying the foundations for acquiescence of North Korea as the world’s next nuclear power.
Joshua Nezam is a David L. Boren Fellow in Seoul, South Korea and a Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leader. He completed a MA International Service at American University and a MA International Studies at Korea University, where his thesis research explored the U.S.-China-ROK triangular dynamics in the context of the North Korean nuclear dilemma.