It’s been over a month since President Trump became the first sitting American president to set foot in North Korea. After months of stalled talks, this third Trump-Kim meeting was greeted with optimism, as the two leaders agreed to resume working-level negotiations. Not only have those talks not started up again, but North Korea has since conducted several missile tests in what many experts believe is a bid to maintain pressure on Washington and Seoul. USIP’s Frank Aum and Ambassador Joseph Yun look at what these tests mean and the prospects for progress in the rest of 2019.

President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, walk out after a bilateral meeting at the Freedom House on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom, June 30, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, walk out after a bilateral meeting at the Freedom House on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom, June 30, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

What is North Korea trying to signal or accomplish with these latest tests? And who are those messages aimed at?

Aum: North Korea has been clear that it is disappointed by the U.S.-South Korea decision to move forward with the August Dong Maeng 19-2 joint exercise. Pyongyang believes this joint exercise—which is a modified version of the previous Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise—is a betrayal of President Trump’s promise at the Singapore Summit to cancel military exercises. 

So, North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests and unwillingness to begin the working-level negotiations agreed to by President Trump and Chairman Kim at Panmunjom on June 30 are protests against the exercises. They are also a response to South Korea taking possession of U.S. F-35 stealth fighters, which North Korea believes can be used in covert “decapitation” operations to take out the regime. It is also possible that North Korea conducted the missile tests for normal research and development purposes as well as to gain leverage heading into future talks.

Yun: The recently tested short-range missiles cannot reach the United States and President Trump has sought to downplay their importance. Pyongyang wants an end to joint U.S.-South Korea exercises and is looking to press Seoul with these provocations. Recent North Korean moves have made it very clear that Pyongyang is deeply unhappy with the South Koreans slow rolling on inter-Korean economic cooperation projects. Specifically, North Korea wants to see real money from South Korea, not simply feel-good humanitarian assistance, fielding sports teams, or supporting family reunions.  

Where do the working-level negotiations agreed to in July stand?

Aum: It is likely that working-level negotiations won't proceed while the Dong Maeng exercises continue through the first three weeks of August. That being said, I think that the working-level meetings will happen at some point because the two sides are still very much invested in reaching some sort of deal in the near term to make progress on denuclearization, sanctions relief, and other confidence-building measures.

Also, a CSIS study suggests that the military exercises have no effect on U.S.-North Korea relations, with the state of relations prior to the exercises being the primary determinant of North Korean behavior after the exercises. Since relations were relatively positive before the exercises, coming out of the June 30 Trump-Kim meeting, I think relations will likely pick up where they left off.

Do you expect any progress on nuclear negotiations this year after the August U.S.-ROK joint exercises?

Yun: Yes, I believe both President Trump and Kim Jong Un want the engagement to continue. So, I do expect we will have working-level meetings soon after the August joint exercises end. This will likely lead to another Trump-Kim summit at the end of the year or early next year. It wouldn't surprise me if the two sides reach an interim agreement that includes a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program, an end-of-war declaration, security guarantees, exchange of liaison offices, people-to-people exchanges, and some partial sanctions relief. This would essentially be the interim deal that many people were hoping for at Hanoi in February.

Related Publications

North Korea Blew Up Its Liaison Office with the South. What Now?

North Korea Blew Up Its Liaison Office with the South. What Now?

Thursday, June 18, 2020

By: Frank Aum; Patricia M. Kim

North Korea’s demolition this week of an inter-Korean liaison office that symbolized North-South cooperation marks a new spike in tensions between the countries, and in North Korean frustration with the United States. It was the latest in a string of inflammatory rhetoric and actions directed at Seoul and Washington since the failure of the February 2019 summit in Hanoi between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The building’s demolition renews strains over North Korea’s ongoing development of a nuclear weapons arsenal, the corresponding global sanctions against Pyongyang’s illicit behavior and the 67-year failure to formalize a peace treaty following the Korean War. USIP analysts Patricia Kim and Frank Aum discuss the latest downturn.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Could U.S.-North Korea Talks Resume in 2020?

Could U.S.-North Korea Talks Resume in 2020?

Monday, May 18, 2020

By: Frank Aum

The coronavirus pandemic has put many U.S. foreign policy priorities on the back burner, including the North Korea dilemma. But this longstanding problem continues to deepen regardless of COVID-19’s trajectory. In March, Pyongyang conducted five short-range ballistic missile and rocket launches. In addition, North Korea is expanding existing rocket launch facilities and building new ones. The unexplained disappearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April led to much speculation about the future of the North Korean regime. Meanwhile, the U.S. presidential elections looms large over North Korea’s calculations. What’s in store for the rest of the year?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

North Korea: Coronavirus, Missiles and Diplomacy

North Korea: Coronavirus, Missiles and Diplomacy

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

By: Ambassador Joseph Yun; Frank Aum; Paul Kyumin Lee

Despite reporting no cases of COVID-19, North Korea’s poor health infrastructure and proximity to coronavirus hotspots make it especially vulnerable to the deadly pandemic. Increasing the risks, humanitarian workers and medical supplies in the North Korea are limited by travel restrictions and sanctions even as the U.N. sanctions committee provided some exemptions to help deal with the virus. An outbreak of the disease in North Korea could have crippling political and socioeconomic consequences, even threatening its internal stability.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Health

View All Publications