Since the Singapore Summit, Washington and Pyongyang have been mired in a stalemate over the sequencing of an end of war declaration and North Korea’s disarmament. Yet, even after the cancellation of Secretary Pompeo’s visit, USIP’s Frank Aum says talks will likely continue, as both sides are invested in a successful outcome.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley (Host): As you probably know, President Trump decided to cancel Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang. We heard from Heather Nauert yesterday at the State Department.

Heather Nauert: There is progress being made. The [crosstalk 00:00:35] Secretary's not just hopping on a plane, and flying to North Korea for his health. He is going there to have serious substantive talks.

Tim Farley (Host): What should we read between these particular lines? Joining us on POTUS is Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea. He has joined the United States Institute of Peace. He came there from the U.S. Korea Institute of John Hopkins University, and also had served as a senior advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, under President Obama, advising four secretaries of defense on issues related to Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula. Twitter handle, by the way, @usip. Frank Aum, welcome. Thank you for being here today.

Frank Aum: Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley (Host): Is this just a sort of another example of the kind of behavior that we have come as a nation to expect from North Korea? Or is this different?

Frank Aum: Oh, well, it's very similar to North Korea's past tyrant behavior, but you have to remember that, you know, since President Trump and Kim Jong Un met in Singapore over two months ago, the U.S. and North Korea had been mired in a stalemate. And the stalemate is this: North Korea wants Washington to take the first move, in terms of doing something that'll show that there's a better relationship between two countries. And what they're looking for is a end-of-war declaration to say that the Korean War is over.

On the other hand, Washington wants North Korea to take the first move, take some major disarmament action that will signal that North Korea is serious about the denuclearization. So there has been a bit of a stalemate about what each side concedes, and who goes first. 

And so what happened was that Secretary of Pompeo's counterpart in North Korea had sent him a letter suggesting that, you know, North Korea is gonna adopt a very tough bargaining position. And so, I think, President Trump decided that, "Hey, that maybe it's not worth it for Secretary Pompeo to go to North Korea this time." And so this move is very similar to what happened before the Singapore Summit, where President Trump canceled it to try to gain some quick leverage, and eventually the summit happened anyways.

Tim Farley (Host): You make it sound like these two are like dealers of some sort. "I'm handing you the cash. You're handing me the paper." But who hands it first, you know? "Do you get the cash before I get the paper? Or the paper before the cash?" I wonder, does the U.S. have a problem with ending that war, declaring it over? Or is it just symbolic in that the U.S. doesn't wanna be taking the first move?

Frank Aum: Well, that's a very good point. So, there has been internal debate within the U.S. Government about what an end of war declaration would mean. Some people say that it doesn't mean anything, because the war has been effectively over for decades, and so we're just making a non-binding, political statement that confirms the reality of the end of the war.

On the other hand, there's other people in the government who are very concerned, because they feel like this sort of declaration would open the door to undermining our security position in South Korea, in the region. There may be some, maybe North Korea or China could use an end-of-war declaration to say, "Hey, if the war is over, why are there U.S. troops still in Korea? Why is there still a United Nations command?" And so that is what some people in the U.S. Government are worried about, that this could be a slippery slope to undermining our position there.

Tim Farley (Host): To the point you're making, yesterday we did hear from the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who said that, you know, there's no plans right now for any suspension of military actions or exercises.

James Mattis: We took the step to suspend several of the largest exercises as a good-faith measure coming out of the Singapore Summit. We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.

Tim Farley (Host): Frank Aum, is it your sense that the United States is sending a unified message to North Korea on these negotiations?

Frank Aum: Yes. And so what Secretary Mattis was referring to is the U.S. and South Korea conduct joint military exercises throughout the year, but there's two major ones: One in the spring, and one in the fall, or the one in August. The one in August was canceled, or suspended, and that allowed the negotiations to move forward. But what Secretary Mattis was saying is that the one in the spring, and takes place usually around March, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve. It's a major exercise where lots of troops go onto the Peninsula, and practice operations and military plans. That has not yet been suspended. 

And so what he is suggesting is that if North Korea continues to maintain an obstinate behavior, and doesn't take these concrete steps toward denuclearization, then those exercises in the spring could be back on. And that would be very irritating to North Korea.

Tim Farley (Host): Now how does South Korea figure into ... How do they figure into all of this discussion right now?

Frank Aum: So, South Korea has been kind of moving forward with progress on inter-Korean cooperation and relations. They also are very supportive of the end-of-war declaration. They feel like that could help improve the ... or reduce tensions on the Peninsula, and be the key that unlocks the diplomatic negotiations.

So, I think South Korea is very frustrated by the stalled negotiations because it doesn't allow them to move forward with their own inter-Korean cooperation. And also, that the goal of the current end of war to the Korean ... an end to the Korean War by the end of the year is very much in jeopardy. So, I think President Moon of South Korea is gonna have a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang some time in early to mid-September. And so I think that meeting will hold greater significance in getting the US and North Korea back on track.

Tim Farley (Host): And is China playing into this at all? Or would they actually like to see the U.S. and North Korea have more negotiations? Or do they oppose that?

Frank Aum: Yes, China is very much is support of negotiations and diplomacy. They are supportive of reducing tensions. They're aligned with the U.S. in terms of seeking the denuclearization of North Korea. But while they're aligned with North Korea on that ultimate goal, they're more supportive of North Korea's preferred process of how we get there. So China also wants the U.S. to take the first action, to provide the first concession. They argue that, you know, the U.S. is the bigger country, so they should be the one that takes more risk in, you know, providing reassurance to North Korea.

So, they are aligned with us in that sense. But I think China's frustrated more because of President Trump's willingness to link issues like the U.S.-China trade sanctions with the North Korea issue. They don't think that's helpful.

Tim Farley (Host): Finally, on the optimism/pessimism scale, if pessimism is a 0, optimism is 100, where are you on that scale, referencing the U.S. and North Korea, and moving forward with these negotiations?

Frank Aum: Well, if it's just moving forward, I would say maybe a 50? 50/50 in terms of moving forward. I feel like we're maybe in a similar situation to what happened before the Singapore Summit, where there's, you know, a little bit of jostling, and hard-ball tactics. But eventually because both North Korea and the United States are invested in a successful outcome, I think that the negotiations will move forward at some point.

Now, if you're talking long-term about a more successful outcome, where we actually see North Korea's denuclearization, I would say maybe a score of 1.

Tim Farley (Host): Oh, wow. Okay. Frank Aum, who has been in the seat watching these closely through a couple of administrations. Frank Aum, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.

Frank Aum: Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley (Host): Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, joining us to give us the latest on what is taking place between the United States and North Korea. The Twitter handle is @usip

Related Publications

Why Calls for Regime Change in North Korea Can Be Counterproductive

Why Calls for Regime Change in North Korea Can Be Counterproductive

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

By: Lauren Sukin

Last September, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, traveled through Russia’s Far East, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss munition sales in return for collaboration on space and other military technology. While Kim was outside of North Korea, Pyongyang test launched a ballistic missile in a move that is becoming quotidian. Although the test was one of dozens that have happened just in the past year, it was the first such test to occur while North Korea’s supreme leader was out of the country.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

A New Approach to Recovering U.S. Servicemen’s Remains from North Korea

A New Approach to Recovering U.S. Servicemen’s Remains from North Korea

Monday, February 12, 2024

By: Donna Knox

Seventy years after the end of the Korean War, there are still more than 7,000 U.S. servicemen who remain missing in action from that conflict. The remains of some 5,200 of these men are believed to be in North Korea. Unfortunately, poor diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea have prevented the recovery of these remains. There is, therefore, a need for an alternative to the usual paradigm for conceiving, planning and implementing the recovery of U.S. war dead from North Korea. Usual practices might not carry the task, and ignoring the responsibility to bring our missing servicemen home should not be an option.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

How to Reduce Nuclear Risks Between the United States and North Korea

How to Reduce Nuclear Risks Between the United States and North Korea

Monday, February 5, 2024

By: Ankit Panda

Since the collapse of the unprecedented leader-level diplomatic process between the United States and North Korea in 2019, relations between the two sides have been at a standstill. In 2021, as the Biden administration entered office, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set into motion a wide-ranging plan for the modernization of his nuclear forces. This modernization has helped render his nuclear deterrent more credible while accentuating the risks of nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It has further cemented North Korea’s lack of intent to relinquish its nuclear weapons, which it views as the essential cornerstone of its national defense strategy.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

North Korea Has Lost the ‘Unification Competition’

North Korea Has Lost the ‘Unification Competition’

Thursday, February 1, 2024

By: Bong-geun Jun

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in January declared peaceful unification with South Korea is no longer possible. In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s parliament, Kim said North Korea’s constitution should be amended to show that South Korea is a “primary foe and invariable principal enemy.”

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

View All Publications