At the first U.S.-North Korea summit in June 2018, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un agreed to pursue “new U.S.-DPRK relations...for peace and prosperity” and Pyongyang recommitted to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”Since then, North Korea has maintained a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests but made virtually no progress on denuclearization. U.S.-DPRK relations are in a new phase insofar as Trump and Kim exchange letters and have now met three times, first in Singapore, then for the no-deal summit in Hanoi in February 2019, and most recently in June for a meet and greet in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the inter-Korean border.
The DMZ meeting made for great television and allowed Kim, Trump and South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in to all claim a win. Kim was able to recover some domestic and international status lost from coming home empty-handed from Hanoi. Trump demonstrated unprecedented access to the North Korean leadership, in marked contrast to his lack of access to Iran’s. Trump also managed to indirectly discount Xi Jinping’s leverage little over a week after the Chinese president met Kim in the midst of a U.S.-China trade war.Meanwhile, Moon achieved a symbolic step he had been seeking for advancing peace and reconciliation while pushing back against the narrative that Seoul had been sidelined.
The Trump-Kim handshake at Panmunjom and Trump’s steps into North Korea were historic, but so was the first joint visit to the DMZ by U.S. and South Korean presidents, where the allies demonstrated coordination of both deterrence and engagement. Maintaining that alliance coordination is even more important than leaders’ personal relations for ultimately realizing the goals of denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. This is especially the case when the actual value of recent summits is yet to be seen, depending on the resumption and progress of working-level talks. The probability of the Kim regime living up to its international obligations is exceedingly low, as is the probability of Pyongyang getting the economic cooperation it wants from other capitals. The probability of North Korea staying quiet about this is nearly zero, as we have seen with its recent missile tests and escalatory rhetoric.
Some analysts argue that North Korea has returned to saber rattling to get attention and restart negotiations. But it is Pyongyang that has chosen to shun U.S. negotiators for working-level talks on denuclearization and spurn Seoul’s offers of civil exchanges and humanitarian assistance. Given the apparent stalemate, what are the strategies of the Trump and Kim governments, whose side is time on, and how can the two sides advance up the diplomatic ladder rather than falling off and returning to military escalation?
Competing Traps: Nuclear Legitimization and Performance Legitimacy
North Korea is far from politically transparent, but there seems to be more to the Kim regime’s strategy than mere survival via military deterrence and domestic repression. Kim appears willing to engage in limited opening and threat reduction in exchange for economic benefits, while retaining nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them. The concern of those critical of engaging Pyongyang is not only that allowing benefits to flow to the Kim regime will prolong North Korea’s threats to regional security and abuses of human rights. The fear is that engagement will eventually lead to de facto international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state. Pyongyang’s policy proclamations and propaganda suggest this is its goal, and much criticism of Trump’s engagement of Kim is that he is falling for the trap.
On the other hand, after a flurry of international diplomacy, North Korea’s leader may have entered the domain of performance legitimacy. That would mean playing up external military threats is no longer sufficient for the regime’s domestic support. Kim needs to deliver sanctions relief for his economy, and earning that requires concrete steps toward denuclearization. The regime can use the Trump-Kim meetings as a short-term propaganda victory, but over the medium to long-term, North Koreans are likely to ask: “if the Americans wanted to invade us and the South Koreans wanted to absorb us, why are we having these nice meetings?” With more access to outside information, North Koreans could place the blame for their economic troubles with the Kim regime. In other words, Trump might be laying the ultimate reality TV trap for Kim: “get rich or die.”
To put it in more diplomatic terms, the allies are drawing attention to Kim’s historic opportunity for economic development and his responsibility for denuclearization. The White House issued a document in June 2019 supporting a prosperous future for North Korea under Kim’s continued leadership. Moon has consistently committed Seoul to “irreversible peace” with Pyongyang. And the U.S. president has reduced military exercises, withheld additional sanctions, and stepped foot into North Korea before the dismantlement of even one nuclear weapon. Kim has now received the highest level, most personal security assurances offered to any North Korean leader. There should be no more benefits or doubts if North Korea fails to produce concrete steps toward denuclearization. The question is whether Kim will empower his officials to negotiate denuclearization and answer Seoul’s invitations for inter-Korean cooperation. He is unlikely to do so if he believes North Korea can withstand international pressure and wait out Trump and Moon for a better deal.
Time on Whose Side?
President Trump says he is in “no rush” in dealing with North Korea and seems content to tell his supporters that a “big fat war in Asia” has been avoided thanks to his personal diplomacy with Kim. Others argue that Trump needs a foreign policy “win” on North Korea before the 2020 election. Kim’s deadline demanding a new U.S. approach by the end of 2019 was probably meant to give North Korea time to complete a personnel and policy regroup after Hanoi. It may have represented a self-imposed deadline to poke holes in the sanctions regime before North Korea runs dangerously low of currency reserves and strategic stockpiles. It almost certainly was an attempt to elicit concessions before Trump and Moon become preoccupied with elections and domestic issues. Given the unusual leadership configuration in Washington and Seoul that has lined up to engage Pyongyang, Kim may face a closing window of opportunity.
A competing argument is that time is on Pyongyang’s side. The longer North Korea keeps its weapons, the more likely the world will begrudgingly accept them. Diplomacy has taken some pressure off Pyongyang and somewhat normalized Kim as an international leader rather than an eccentric rights-violating dictator. All the while, North Korea has presumably been adding to its nuclear stockpile and delivery capabilities.
And yet, the contradictions inside North Korea are growing, not to the extent that many analysts expect the imminent collapse of the Kim regime, but performance legitimacy dynamics could drive more changes than Pyongyang currently foresees. Lack of sanctions relief would further impede the economy and cause a more internationally aware and economically demanding North Korean citizenry to stir. It may take a domestic political transition in North Korea before the country really gives up its nuclear weapons. But that does not mean diplomacy is not worth the effort in the interim. In case time is on no one’s side, how might Pyongyang and Washington avoid military escalation and instead ascend the ladder of diplomacy?
A Difficult Climb Ahead
Over a year after the first Trump-Kim meeting, the summit-driven approach has not met expectations. But no party wants to fall off the diplomatic ladder. Trump does not want his claimed accomplishment of a nuclear and long-range missile testing freeze reversed, Moon hopes to further advance an inter-Korean peace agenda, and Kim needs progress on economic development. The problem is that the diplomatic ladder is unstable, and the final rungs of denuclearization and peace remain out of reach. To avoid falling off, the parties have to agree on the next rung to grasp, matching concrete denuclearization steps with corresponding measures for North Korea.
A “big deal” encompassing all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction assets is beyond what Kim would accept. A “small deal” repackaging previous North Korean offers would not justify significant sanctions relief and would risk Trump walking away as he did in Hanoi. But a deal based on a “big definition” of Yongbyon—including verified dismantlement of all related plutonium and uranium facilities—could be feasible in exchange for sanctions waivers for inter-Korean projects and exemptions from UN Security Council sectoral bans. Renewal of the waivers should require further progress on denuclearization. Exemptions from UN sanctions should have snapback provisions in case Pyongyang is caught cheating. This compromise would help Kim with his performance legitimacy pressures without legitimizing his weapons. It would be negotiated at the working-level and endorsed at the summit level, both which should recognize the deal as advancing a longer process toward fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and normalized U.S.-DPRK relations.
Time may not favor Kim’s nuclear legitimization strategy or Trump’s attempts at laying a performance legitimacy trap, but both sides have interests in continuing diplomacy and avoiding military escalation. Toward that end, Washington can call on Pyongyang to respond to South Korea’s offers of humanitarian cooperation, including separated family reunions, recovery of fallen soldiers’ remains, and delivery of food and medical aid through UN agencies. As greater trust is established with North Korea, a declaration of nuclear assets and a roadmap to their dismantlement can be negotiated with further sanctions relief, a peace regime and diplomatic normalization. Those goals remain a long way off but can be guiding stars during a difficult climb.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
Leif-Eric EASLEY is Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha University where he teaches international security and political economics. His research includes U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral coordination on engaging China and North Korea. He completed his B.A. in political science with a minor in mathematics at UCLA and received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Department of Government.
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