U.S.-DPRK Relations: Two Years after the Singapore Summit

Two years ago, in Singapore on June 12, we were invited to suspend disbelief as we watched the first ever meeting between incumbent leaders of the United States and North Korea – a relationship long characterized by enmity and distrust. Just months before, both countries had appeared on a war footing. 

While the theatrics around the summit and the vague content of the resulting agreement were scorned by some, there was also a genuine sense of hope and dynamism – that the seeming bonhomie between Trump and Kim could perhaps catalyse a new process for peace and denuclearization where previous negotiations under different leaders had failed.

What Went Wrong?

The past two years, however, have disabused us of such hopes as both sides dug their heels in, adopting inflexible demands and failing to implement the lofty pledges made in Singapore. What then went wrong?

Although mandated to do so by United Nations resolutions, it was unrealistic to expect that North Korea would be willing put its entire nuclear program on the table. In demanding the lifting of trade-related sanctions at the Hanoi Summit in February 2019, North Korea also overestimated its leverage as well as Trump’s willingness to secure a deal.

A glaring gap in approach was that while North Korea sought to incrementally trade away elements of its program at the highest price possible, the U.S. favoured a “big deal” method that demanded significant denuclearization measures upfront that went far beyond what Pyongyang is willing to entertain.

Both sides demands were informed by wishful thinking and a lack of understanding of each other’s political realities: North Korea, that its newfound nuclear weapons status – bolstered by its purported ability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead – had forced Washington to treat it as a formidable counterpart with whom it would have to bargain; the U.S., that sanctions and concerted diplomatic and military pressure had finally kowtowed North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions in return for a brighter economic future.

While the Trump administration continued to maintain an illusion of progress – namely North Korea’s suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests – the reality was that a stalemate had been reached.

South Korea has also found itself increasingly powerless as it became caught in the bind of U.S.-North Korea relations. The promotion of inter-Korean exchanges, a key objective of President Moon’s engagement policy, ground to a halt as Pyongyang punished Seoul for a lack of progress as well as pressured it into breaking ranks with Washington.

Exacerbating the divide between the sides was a failure to properly empower working-level negotiations as North Korea focused on personal appeals to Trump’s ego in the vain hope of a more favourable deal. Meanwhile the Trump administration was prone to mixed messaging, with Trump frequently undercutting those tasked with overseeing diplomacy with North Korea.

Growing geo-strategic competition and rancour between the U.S. and China also stymied the potential for greater coordination on the enforcement of sanctions or instituting much needed multilateral diplomatic initiatives.

Instead, after several years of frosty relations, China and North Korea came to a mutual strategic understanding of their fundamental interests. The upshot of this is that Beijing pledged to have Pyongyang’s back, thus lessening the pressure on Kim to return to the negotiation table.

Maximum Pressure versus Trustpolitik

With diplomacy having stalled, if not failed, some in the U.S. are calling for a return to maximum pressure. This would involve ramping up diplomatic pressure, trying to patch up the holes in the leaky sanctions regime, and bolstering military deterrence.

With a different regime in a different neighbourhood, such sustained and coordinated pressure could feasibly work. But as experience has shown, the geopolitical realities on the Korean Peninsula would bet against it, especially if Washington fails to find accommodation with Beijing. Such an approach also tends to underestimate the North Korean regime’s dogged resilience in withstanding such pressure.

On the other end of the spectrum, advocates of engagement argue that only a process of trustpolitik will attenuate North Korea’s security dilemma, leading some time down the road to it dismantling its nuclear weapons. Such an approach, however, perhaps underestimates the ultra-realpolitik permeating Pyongyang’s calculus which could take many years to change, if at all.

In the end, the structural dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, the prevailing security interests of each party, and the benefits from maintaining the status quo do not easily lend the “nuclear issue” – as it is often grossly oversimplified – to resolution.

Calibrating Expectations

Instead, we are forced to consider how to manage the situation premised on the understanding that peace and denuclearization will likely be a protracted process rather than a quick-fix grand bargain.

This means calibrating expectations towards what, under these conditions, might be possible. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, there will likely be no perfect deal or a comprehensive roadmap to denuclearization, even if desirable.

Should negotiations resume, the most likely starting-point for any deal would centre on the freezing of nuclear fissile production in return for some degree of sanctions relief, preferably bolstered with other political and military confidence-building measures. Pyongyang has expressed its willingness to discuss the dismantlement of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor (even if Washington has indicated that this is not enough). In turn, snap-back sanctions relief with a clear time limit could be adopted to incentivize and safeguard compliance.

Such a deal could create the necessary positive environment – a stepping stone – for further steps and a more comprehensive agreement. It would also have the added advantage of sending nuclear inspectors back to North Korea for the first time in over decade, thus re-establishing a degree of international oversight and constraint.

Critics are right, however, to point out the shortcomings of such a potential deal. It is unlikely that North Korea would provide a complete list of its facilities or give free rein to inspectors to verify all aspects of its nuclear and missile programs. Agreeing on the sequencing of measures and rewards would also entail difficult negotiations and risks of non-compliance. Furthermore, even if Yongbyon were to be dismantled, Pyongyang could have extracted “enough” concessions whilst holding on to its nuclear stockpile and continuing a covert program at undeclared facilities.

Risks of No Deal

These are undeniably very real risks. But they need to be hedged against the risks attached with accepting the current status quo whilst holding out for a more far-reaching deal.

Only maintaining pressure without the incentive of tangible concessions will likely simply entrench North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, allowing it to continue developing its programs largely unchecked, including the very significant risk of proliferation. North Korea’s population will continue to suffer from a “silent” humanitarian crisis exacerbated by wide-ranging sanctions. The longer North Korea keeps on to its nuclear weapons without any sign of progress, so calls will increase in South Korea and Japan to also acquire such weaponry – representing the final death-knell to the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

In sum, the past two years have proved a missed opportunity for diplomacy. While there have thankfully been no new nuclear or ICBM tests, or threats of war, this does not mean that there won’t be: Kim Jong Un has already indicated that North Korea no longer feels bound to its self-imposed moratorium. Plenty of risks are evident and a downward spiral of harsh rhetoric, provocations, and political and military posturing can easily resume. We should therefore not be complacent with the status quo.

Rather what is needed is a renewed push on all sides to mitigate the risks of a return to a vicious cycle of tensions and find entry points into a phased, incremental process rather than issue unwavering demands. This cannot be achieved by grandstanding leaders and repeating hollow pledges. Both sides, preferably in concert with other stakeholders including South Korea and China, need to sit down and begin real working negotiations in earnest.

In the absence of one party’s unlikely capitulation, all successful negotiations require political will, vision, and a preparedness to assume a degree of compromise and risk. Unfortunately, the past two years have demonstrated that these ingredients are in short supply.

Alec Forss is Project Coordinator for the Korea Center at the Institute for Security and Development Policy. The views expressed here are his own.