During most of the previous two decades, North Korea’s foreign relations included several prominent features. The government of Pyongyang routinely attempted to intimidate South Korea, Japan, and the United States by signaling that the North Koreans were ready, even eager, to go to war. North Korea treated Seoul with contempt. Pyongyang showed little interest in serious economic liberalization, but great interest in securing an inflow of economic benefits from the United States and South Korea, provided the Kim regime could tightly control the internal distribution of those benefits. North Korea demanded that the United States and South Korea cease their annual joint military exercises. And Pyongyang resisted taking meaningful steps toward dismantling its nuclear bomb and ballistic missile programs, saying the United States must first eliminate its own nuclear weapons.
Jump to the summer of 2019, and it seems little has changed. Pyongyang test-fired short-range ballistic missiles in what the government called a warning to South Korea. The North wants Seoul to not participate in a relatively small, routine, and mostly computerized military exercise with the United States planned for August, along with a demand that South Korea “scrap” its U.S.-made F-35 fighter aircraft. North Korea also made a show of highlighting a “powerful” newly built submarine assigned to duty in the “East Sea of Korea” (more commonly known as the Sea of Japan). North Korean government-controlled media reiterated that the country will not denuclearize until the elimination of “all nuclear threat factors . . . targeting the Korean Peninsula,” implying the United States must give up its ability to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. And the country has still made no substantial moves toward giving up its nuclear weapons or ballistic missile programs.
The continuity is striking because of what happened in 2017 and 2018. First, in late 2017 North Korea achieved what outsiders regard as a credible nuclear-armed ballistic missile capability. Many analysts saw this as a “game changer” in Northeast Asian geopolitics (see here, here and here.) For the first time, Pyongyang now had a presumed capability to do serious harm to the U.S. homeland.
Then in 2018 North Korea seemed to dramatically shift gears by launching a peace offensive, including the “game changing” elements of last-minute North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics and the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore. Kim also got face-to-face meetings with the presidents of China, Russia, and South Korea.
Pyongyang’s outreach led to Kim’s message to Trump in March 2018, delivered indirectly through South Korea’s National Security Office chief, Chung Eui-yong, who acted as go-between. According to Chung, Kim had three key points for the U.S. government. First, he “committed to denuclearization.” That’s denuclearization, period, implying North Korean denuclearization. Second, Kim reportedly promised to stop missile and nuclear bomb tests. Third, Kim accepted that “routine” U.S.-South Korean military exercises would continue.
We now know that either Kim was being deceitful (most likely) or Chung did not accurately represent what the North Korean leader said. The North Korean claim to being committed to denuclearization satisfied a long-standing U.S. precondition for negotiations. (Trump, of course, might have agreed to a summit even absent that North Korean commitment.) But the North Korean position quickly morphed back into its familiar form of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which has always been shorthand for “We’ll get rid of our nuclear weapons when the Americans get rid of theirs.” Trump unwisely agreed to this formulation in the 2018 Singapore Summit joint statement. After a year and a half of foot-dragging, Pyongyang looks more like a country committed to keeping its nuclear weapons and missiles than the opposite. Indeed, outside experts assess that Kim has expanded his nuclear arsenal since his first meeting with Trump.
Nor has Kim lived up to his purported promise to accept routine U.S.-South Korean military exercises. These exercises are now significantly reduced from their 2017 level as a unilateral goodwill gesture to North Korea, but in July Pyongyang demanded even further reduction as a precondition to continue negotiations.
Kim’s third reported commitment, the moratorium on testing, now appears shaky and conditional. North Korea tested short-range ballistic missiles, which could reach much of South Korea including U.S. bases there, in May as well as July. The North Korean Foreign Ministry recently threatened to restart testing over the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercise.
Trump’s claim after the Singapore Summit that he had “solved” the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis is thoroughly discredited, but so is his claim that he has handled North Korea better than any other U.S. president has or could have. It is likely any presidential administration would have agreed to negotiations after Kim professed openness to bargaining away his nukes. What was unusual about Trump was his willingness to meet with Kim at such an early stage of the process. That made a top-down, instantaneous breakthrough possible, but it also reflected Trump’s disdain for expert advice and lack of concern for political and historical complexity. Up to now Trump’s “unconventional” approach has not proved successful. The failure of the principals to achieve a breakthrough after three meetings affirms the value of background work by senior officials. Trump has continually and publicly undercut his own negotiating team, leading the North Koreans to believe they can get a better deal by talking directly with Trump. The president is now stuck repeating the mantra that things are going fine as long as North Korea does not test long-range missiles, even as Pyongyang exploits that leverage.
The upside of the game not really changing is that the changes we most feared have not occurred. Pyongyang has not launched its nuclear weapons against an adversary, and has not explicitly used them to attempt to blackmail South Korea or Japan.
Admittedly, however, we have not faced a serious test of those possibilities because Pyongyang went almost immediately from virtually achieving nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile capability to its latest peace offensive. We have yet to weather a large spike in tensions with a North Korea that can reliably carry out a nuclear strike.
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.