A little over a year ago, U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s third meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was making headlines as much for its historic nature—it was the first time that a sitting U.S. president had set foot in North Korea—as for what it represented about the lack of progress in U.S.-North Korea relations. The next U.S. administration, whether it is led by Trump or former Vice President Joseph Biden, will face a more emboldened regime in Pyongyang and, according to experts, must rethink past failed strategies for dealing with this challenge.

A Secret Service agent stands watch as President Donald Trump arrives at Observation Post Ouellette to view North Korea along the Demilitarized Zone at Camp Bonifas in South Korea, June 30, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
A Secret Service agent stands watch as President Donald Trump arrives at Observation Post Ouellette to view North Korea along the Demilitarized Zone at Camp Bonifas in South Korea, June 30, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

“The basic upshot is that we have not made any progress in tangibly reducing the North Korean threat or enhancing peace and security in the region,” said Frank Aum, a senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace, during a USIP-hosted online panel on September 9.

Rather, North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have grown both in terms of quality and quantity. The regime has threatened to unveil a new strategic weapon—an act that experts say could come as early as next month during the 75th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Communist Party in Pyongyang. Markus Garlauskas, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. national intelligence officer for North Korea, cited reports that indicate North Korea is preparing to test a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). He predicted the regime may also roll out a new submarine.

Ankit Panda, the Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the “set of policy problems” with respect to North Korea, including denuclearization, disarmament, and human rights, grew larger in 2017 when Pyongyang successfully demonstrated its ability to strike the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon.

No matter who wins the U.S. presidential election in November, “It is clearly time for a new direction in our approach” to North Korea, said Suzanne DiMaggio, chair of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

A Diplomatic Stalemate

After a period of heighted tensions in 2017, which included provocative nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and a war of words between Trump and Kim, the two leaders engaged in three meetings in 2018 and 2019.

Their first meeting, in Singapore on June 12, 2018, produced a joint statement in which the two countries committed to work toward new U.S.-North Korea relations and a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea committing to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The next eight months saw no progress on these commitments, which led to a second meeting between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February 2019.  This meeting ended in failure. North Korea insisted that all major economic sanctions imposed since 2016 be lifted in exchange for the dismantlement of its most important nuclear facility at Yongbyon, while the United States countered by seeking the dismantlement of North Korea’s entire weapons of mass destruction program, including chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles. Kim rejected the U.S. counterproposal as well as an offer for a smaller deal that would include only partial sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantlement of Yongbyon. Since then, the United States and North Korea have struggled to bridge the gap and are locked in a seemingly intractable diplomatic stalemate.

DiMaggio said the Trump and Kim administrations are both to blame for the present impasse. “It should be known by now that the North Koreans are not going to agree to any process that provides no security assurances to safeguard their regime, no opportunities to address economic challenges early in that process,” she said.

U.S. administrations have historically struggled to deal with North Korea. Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, said going back three decades, every U.S. administration has underestimated the importance of nuclear weapons to the North Korean regime and what it would take to get Pyongyang to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

In a new report for the U.S. Institute of Peace, Jackson examines the benefits and risks to the United States of engaging North Korea’s national security establishment, especially the military, to better understand its motivations and interests and improve the prospects of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Failed Sanctions

The panelists largely agreed that, despite North Korea being one of the world’s most heavily sanctioned countries, pressure has failed to convince the regime to give up its nuclear program. Acknowledging that the sanctions simply have not worked, Garlauskas said: “The idea that you can just keep applying economic pressure on North Korea and it is going to cause it to make the strategic pivot to give up its nuclear program, that definitely cannot be the premise of a policy.”

Jackson argued the United States has failed to understand the “strategic culture in North Korea that can be summed up as pressure for pressure”—a reason he says why Trump’s maximum pressure strategy is not working. “Being so divorced from a realistic sense of North Korea and of its history is precisely why we were immersed in the level of danger that we were in 2017,” he added. At that time, tensions between the United States and North Korea were at a boiling point with Trump threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.

The Way Forward

Given the progress North Korea has made in developing its military arsenal, Panda said: “The next [U.S.] administration is going to find itself with less bargaining power than the Trump administration enjoyed in Singapore and Hanoi, which wasn’t a great deal of bargaining power to begin with.”

A U.S. policy will thus have to include “trading a very small set of relief measures—be that sanctions relief, be that certain adjustments to U.S. and South Korean force posture on and around the Korean Peninsula—in exchange for a small concession … from North Korea,” he said.

If Trump is re-elected, DiMaggio suggested that his administration reassess its options, adjust its negotiating positions, set achievable goals, transition to an action-for-action approach with incremental benchmarks, and have the flexibility to manage setbacks.

A Biden administration, she argued, should proactively reach out to North Korea; choose advisers that actually support engagement; maintain the suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests; use the Singapore declaration as a spring board for restarting talks; and coordinate with allies, particularly South Korea, while attempting to bring China on board.

Jackson emphasized that the overarching priority has to be reducing the risk of nuclear war. This can be achieved by “taking diplomacy more seriously… [and doing] a better job of pricing in how valuable North Korea’s nukes are to the regime so that we can calibrate a more realistic bargain.” He added: “We need to think less about how we can pressure North Korea … we need to think much more about how we can stabilize the situation.”

Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, argued that the next U.S. administration should take concrete steps under a peace-based approach, including formally declaring an end to the Korean War and reaching a peace agreement with North Korea. The hostilities of the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

Ahn said the United States can advance peace by easing sanctions, especially related to humanitarian assistance; removing travel restrictions; refraining from deploying additional U.S. military assets to the Peninsula, conducting military exercises, or engaging in hostile rhetoric; facilitating reunions between long-divided Korean Americans and their family members in North Korea; supporting South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s pro-engagement policy with North Korea; and democratizing the peace process by enhancing civil society participation.

Jackson acknowledged that the next U.S. administration will face “a very bad situation” with North Korea. But he struck a hopeful note. “Paradoxically, the next president is going to be more free to take a different approach than any past administration, so if we can make some better choices in this space I am actually pretty hopeful about where we can end up,” he added.

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