On January 18, the White House announced that a second summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un would be held. Trump revealed in his State of the Union address on February 5 that the summit will occur on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam. The second summit will come on the heels of the first in June 2018, which was the first of its kind between state leaders of the United States and North Korea. Although the summit’s historic nature sent worldwide media into a frenzy, the summit was exceedingly uneventful. Trump and Kim simply shook hands on a vague, terse agreement to continue working towards goals such as denuclearization and peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea policy has been a significant part of the Trump presidency’s narrative. Initially, Trump’s election led to a dramatic heightening of tensions between North Korea and the United States. Trump brought his brash and bombastic approach to personal affairs into the international fray, famously threatening to rain “fire and fury” upon North Korea should it blatantly aggress the United States. The administration’s lack of compelling strategy and apparent reliance on Trump’s bellicose word choice to negotiate with Kim Jong-un alarmed onlookers throughout the world, myself included. After the 2017 crisis simmered down (with some help from the Asia-Pacific region’s preeminent third-party intervener, China) and North Korea participated in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there was real hope for improved inter-Korean dialogue.
Before the first summit began, I predicted that the most likely and preferable outcome would be one where “no deal is made but a commitment is made to further talks.” That prediction more or less sums up the first summit with North Korea. In the first year or so of the Trump presidency, I expressed cautioned optimism about the new administration’s potential to make tangible headway with regards to US-North Korean relations and inter-Korean stability. Unfortunately, the lack of progress on those issues since the summit half a year ago is exposing Trump’s North Korea policy as nothing more than a charade. The United States needs to look towards a post-Trump North Korea strategy that appropriately accounts for a nuclear North Korea.
Trump’s North Korea Policy Has Fallen Flat
The April 2018 inter-Korean summit between South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un set the stage for the oncoming June 2018 summit between Trump and Kim—the negotiations of which had a rocky start, to say the least. At the summit, Trump failed to coax Kim into agreeing to the United States’ longstanding demand of “complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament” of North Korea. The United States did secure the return and repatriation of the remains of American forces from the Korean War, but even that process has stalled. After the summit, Trump rashly declared on Twitter that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the United States and, inexplicably, said in a speech that he and Kim “fell in love”.
The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea has shown no promise as far as improving US-North Korean relations. Part of the problem is that, despite the lofty dialogue, Kim Jong-un’s regime and the Trump administration are not negotiating with the same conceptual definition of “denuclearization”. The United States continues to seek comprehensive denuclearization aligned with its interests, but North Korea’s interpretation of denuclearization involves a corresponding withdrawal of the United States’ diplomatic and military commitments to the Korean Peninsula. The two states have not made sincere headway on the meaning of denuclearization and as a result, North Korea continues to object to any unilateral concessions regarding its nuclear program.
Some analysts of the situation, like the University of Chicago’s own John Mearsheimer, contend that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, as they are closest thing to a guarantor of regime survival in modern international politics. The United States has pursued North Korean denuclearization for decades now. Even though Trump has (somehow) made the most headway of the last several presidents, North Korea is probably just buying time to achieve a level of nuclearization that threatens the US homeland—a view that National Security Advisor John Bolton has previously expressed. Kim Jong-un, after all, is only thirty-five years old: regime survival is arguably more valuable to him than denuclearization is to the Trump administration.
Evidence thus far indicates that Trump has not really coerced North Korea. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has questioned North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization and US intelligence officials have exposed the rogue state’s continuing development of undeclared ballistic missile test sites. US intelligence’s contradictions of Trump’s claims have forced the president to backtrack from his prior rosy statements. Russia has even gotten into the mix, offering North Korea a nuclear power plant and undermining American negotiation credibility. All in all, Trump’s North Korea policy has devolved into a tactic to claim political credit at home and distract from the dysfunction of his presidency. It is time to stop pretending Trump’s North Korea acumen has any substance as it becomes increasingly unhinged from reality.
Finding a Post-Trump Approach to North Korea
Instead of wasting its time with doomed diplomatic efforts and allowing North Korea to obscure its fundamental intentions with misleading rhetoric, the United States ought to accept the harsh possibility that North Korea is entering the world’s exclusive club of nuclear powers. One would hope that the United States’ military and intelligence apparatus has been preparing for that eventuality. Trump’s presence—mainly his fragile ego and grandiose self-conception of himself—casts doubt on that hope: he might impede the United States from planning for a nuclear North Korea beyond his presidency. Kim Jong-un’s relative youth and the two countries’ divergent political structures further complicate the matter. Kim can follow a long term vision while Trump is decades older and limited by the United States’ democratic system.
As time passes, the hope for North Korean denuclearization on the United States’ terms is becoming increasingly fantastical. In an interview with The Diplomat, former Obama defense official Van Jackson correctly points out that “the Trump administration itself is both a historical anomaly and a ticking time bomb” and that Washington also has a hard time realizing that Kim will shirk from significant concessions as long as possible. Trump’s North Korea policy differs from the standard approach, but both have come up short. Jackson further asserts that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state in spite of the international community’s lack of formal recognition. If the United States can wholly accept that North Korea will do whatever it takes to retain and enlarge its nuclear prowess, then it can begin to remake its approach.
Accepting a nuclear North Korea is an essentially realist notion that does not require the United States to forgo strategic gains. An acknowledgement of North Korea’s nuclearization should not be accompanied by an American withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula, which Kim would covet. Deemphasizing the United States’ commitment to South Korea or Japan would constitute an overly extreme concession towards a nuclear North Korea. The United States must retain its presence on the Korean Peninsula and in the Asia-Pacific; doing otherwise would be counterintuitive to recognizing North Korea’s growing nuclear ability. The United States should also seek to put conditions on rhetorical recognition of North Korea’s nuclear power unless the regime changes other policies, such as its human rights violations or rejection of IAEA oversight.
Trump has diverged somewhat from the liberal internationalism that has defined the United States’ overall foreign policy positions, but his divergence (called “illiberal” by some) has only added incompetence to chronic misguidedness. Neither Trump’s approach nor the DC consensus are optimal ways to handle Kim’s regime. The United States needs to embrace a third option that recognizes North Korea’s nuclear power without making strategic concessions. The Trump administration can and likely will continue to push for its version of North Korean denuclearization and engage in attention-grabbing summits. But such efforts will continue to be for naught, especially without a grounded understanding of North Korea’s nuclear interests—and its unwillingness to completely, verifiably and irreversibly shift gears at the United States’ behest.
Overhauling years of precedent on how to deal with North Korea is a significant challenge. But the United States needs to begin doing so now or risk being unprepared to grapple with North Korea in the future. It is time, in short, to get real about a nuclear North Korea.
The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. The original was taken by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen and can be found here.