In early 2018, it appeared Kim Jong Un might have decided to accept the U.S. grand bargain of denuclearization in exchange for upgraded economic and political relations with the United States. Despite its flaws, the idea of a summit meeting between U.S. President Trump and North Korean paramount leader Kim Jong Un was defensible. Admittedly, the summit gave Kim undeserved international prestige, and it was too rushed to allow for proper preparatory negotiations. It did, however, create the possibility of a significant breakthrough and an acceleration of the usual bureaucratic process.
Unfortunately, the joint statement resulting from the Singapore summit led to post-summit confusion. The statement lists three action items: First, both sides will “build a lasting and stable peace regime” (i.e., an agreement to formally end the Korean War, followed by a peace treaty); second, North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”; finally, the recovery of American military remains from North Korea. Both sides, however, interpreted the document different ways.
The Americans demanded immediate and substantive North Korean action on denuclearization as the first order of business. But after providing 55 boxes of what they said were the remains of U.S. service personnel, the North Koreans expected the next step would be a formal agreement to end the war. Washington maintains that such an agreement can only follow significant movement toward denuclearization. This led to Pyongyang to characterize U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s position as “gangster-like,” along with a general lack of progress in the negotiations.
U.S. leverage over Pyongyang has largely dissipated since last year. Although the United States has not lifted its economic sanctions, North Korea’s main trading partner, China, is no longer vigorously enforcing sanctions, signaling the end of “maximum pressure.” Threat of a U.S. preventative attack is gone in the absence of further North Korean missile or bomb testing. Seoul is moving to restore North-South economic cooperation. Trump erred in overselling the Singapore summit as mission accomplished for denuclearization, and Pyongyang knows he will be hesitant to take points off the scoreboard. Even if Kim was willing to fully denuclearize under what he considered the right conditions, he would likely retain at least some of his nuclear weapons until the end of the process to avoid taking pressure off the United States to provide promised benefits.
The nuclear weapons issue came to dominate U.S. policy toward North Korea over two decades ago for the understandable reason that Washington is compelled to prevent additional potential adversaries from threatening America’s people, territory or allies with nuclear attack. In fact, however, that was never a serious possibility in this case because even if North Korea gained an unambiguous nuclear ICBM capability, Pyongyang would have been deterred from using it by the certainty of catastrophic U.S. retaliation. Furthermore, Kim now seems willing to settle for the status of a “virtual” nuclear weapons power. In January, he announced that North Korea no longer needed to test-explode nuclear bombs or flight-test long-range missiles, and instead his country would move on to an emphasis on production and deployment.
The North Koreans actually suspended testing prematurely. They have not demonstrated the abilities to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile, to protect the warhead during re-entry into the atmosphere so that it would still work afterward, or to hit anywhere near an intended target. The likelihood of a U.S. preventative military attack against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities was rising the closer Pyongyang got to demonstrating the full package of nuclear ICBM capabilities. Kim sensibly settled into a nuclear sweet spot where he has gone far enough to bolster his country’s deterrence against foreign invasion (compensating for the relative weaknesses in North Korea’s conventional forces), but not far enough to invite a U.S. attack.
Although not acknowledged by the Trump administration, the American vision of North Korean denuclearization, as captured by the new phrase “final, fully-verified denuclearization” — is no longer an attainable objective as the crisis settles into an inconclusive stalemate. Now it appears the best Washington could get out of Pyongyang in the medium term is a negotiated set of non-fully-verifiable limitations on the size and scope of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, for which North Koreans will demand payment in the form of sanctions relief, economic benefits, and cuts in the U.S. military footprint on South Korea.
From here, rather than snapping back to the 2017 policy of threatening North Korea with a preventive military attack if it does not dismantle its nuclear weapons program, Washington has the opportunity to reorient U.S.-North Korean relations toward a different, longer-term strategic goal: enticing North Korea out of China’s sphere of influence. Like their cousins in South Korea, the North Koreans are wary of Chinese domination. They frequently express a desire to extract themselves from over-reliance on China.
The new approach would focus on cultivating a constructive working relationship with Pyongyang. In effect, denuclearization would become the means and an improved relationship the end, the reverse of the current approach. This would require the U.S. government to make early symbolic concessions to the North Koreans while accepting slow and incremental North Korean steps toward denuclearization. These concessions would include Washington agreeing to immediate discussions of a formal declaration of an end to the Korean War, as Seoul is already discussing with Pyongyang, and some form of U.S. “security guarantee” to the effect that Washington has no plans to overthrow the Kim regime. The U.S. government could also agree to adjustments in U.S. military presence or activity on the peninsula that address North Korean complaints without substantially jeopardizing South Korea’s security. Denuclearization would remain on the agenda, but Washington would also value and even reward North Korean concessions not directly connected to denuclearization.
Eventually, this approach might result in U.S.-North Korea relations improving to the point of surpassing North Korea-China relations, with the added benefit of supporting détente between Seoul and Pyongyang. Like “Nixon going to China,” Trump could make this adjustment with little or no damage to his domestic political standing. Taking this approach would square long-term U.S. strategic interests with a new reality in which North Korea’s nuclear weapons are firmly ensconced but pose little actual threat to America, China and Russia are alleviating sanctions pressure on North Korea, Kim is out of danger of a U.S. strike, and South Korea is moving on its own to improve relations with North Korea.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center.