North Korean Denuclearization: Determining an Uncertain Future

 /  April 7, 2020, 11:42 a.m.

Trump-Kim Meeting
US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un shake hands at their 2018 summit in Singapore.

In August 2017, President Donald Trump turned the world upside down with a series of televised remarks directed at North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un, resulting in a firestorm of criticism from left and right alike. In the flourish of a strongman, Trump issued a warning to North Korea, declaring “fire and fury.” Kim retaliated by announcing plans to launch missiles at Guam. 

The uncertainty of those initial events seems to have defined much of the Trump administration’s strategy toward North Korean denuclearization: the complete dismantlement and abandonment of all nuclear armaments. In the beginning, Trump seemed to be spearheading a shift in the way the United States negotiated peace with the hermit kingdom. However, as Trump nears the end of his term, he has made minimal changes in American foreign policy towards North Korea, despite the groundbreaking denuclearization summits between the two leaders. 

The lack of substantive policy-making, paired with the upcoming US election, has fostered uncertainty surrounding the future of the American nuclear disarmament initiative for North Korea. If Trump wins the election, his administration might continue on its shaky path to denuclearization. But the policies of the Democratic candidates vary widely. Former Vice President Joe Biden may follow the prudent footsteps of the Obama administration, while Senator Bernie Sanders may be much more similar to Trump than expected.

A History of North Korean Denuclearization Efforts

The North Korean pursuit of nuclear weaponry dates back to the Korean War, when North Korean officials suspected that American forces might be able to completely erase the country from existence using its nuclear arms. That fear was not unfounded—President Harry Truman refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the war. Today, that same fear permeates Pyongyang’s leadership. In the face of the contemporary North Korean nuclear program, the United States extends protection to South Korea, its ally, via its own nuclear arsenal, a constant threat and source of tension to Pyongyang. 

US-North Korean relations were not always this volatile. In the 1980s, North Korea even developed a nuclear energy plant of its own and signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) alongside its southern rival. Pyongyang eventually announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 1994, but the United States still hoped it would succeed in achieving eventual denuclearization. The Clinton administration had witnessed the Soviet Union’s collapse and reorganization as the Russian Federation in 1991, and Beijing was attempting a more favorable disposition with South Korea. During this string of foreign policy wins for the United States, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear activities under the Agreed Framework of 1994. 

This progression saw a reversal with the following Bush administration. Expressing skepticism about whether Pyongyang was fully obliging with the terms of the Agreed Framework, the Bush administration completely changed the attitude of the United States toward North Korea. American hostility and suspicion were dominant; North Korea could either comply with denuclearization or face the consequences. In 2003, North Korea officially left the NPT, and despite attempts at bringing nuclear disarmament principles to fruition, procedural disagreements prevented further advancement.

The adoption of the Trump administration’s policy of CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization) in 2018 has proven to be problematic, but it must be understood that it is essentially the same as the Bush administration’s approach. CVID entails hostility, suspicion, and threats for acts of noncompliance. It is coercive and stubborn to negotiate. There may have been some appeal to CVID before 2006, when North Korea had yet to launch any nuclear missiles, and coercion seemed to be the only option for bringing about denuclearization. CVID was essentially designed for a North Korea that was much less of a threat than it is today, never mind one that poses any amount of danger to the United States. 

Further, it fails to acknowledge the main reason Pyongyang keeps augmenting its nuclear arsenal: there is virtually no chance that the United States might denuclearize. Therefore, there is no reason for North Korea to denuclearize either, because only nuclear weapons provide real leverage in its negotiations with the United States. However, despite this underlying tension, both states continued with denuclearization negotiations, resulting in summits at Singapore (2018) and Hanoi (2019).

Denuclearization and the Trump Administration

The Singapore summit held two major consequences for American foreign policy measures regarding North Korean denuclearization. First, it set a precedent for the top-down approach of carrying out negotiations, a divergence from normal diplomatic proceedings. Instead of the policy-makers of both states meeting to create a realistic plan for reform, the leaders of both states met to discuss four main objectives over the course of the summit, three of which were: to establish new relations, to attempt to build a peaceful regime on the Korean peninsula, and to commit to recovering and repatriating the remains of American prisoners of war and missing soldiers. In addition, North Korea would be expected to completely denuclearize. These objectives quickly proved to be nothing but talk; because policy-makers had not been in control of negotiating policy, there was very little idea about how to actualize the objectives discussed. In short, the goals were agreed upon, but the manner in which both governments would reach them was not decided. 

Second, historical novelty aside, there was a concerning aspect to the face-to-face negotiations: intentionally or unintentionally, Trump had legitimized North Korea, an achievement which the Kim lineage had striven for since the nascence of the hermit kingdom. Uncharacteristically, the United States acted in its favor; by cancelling bilateral military exercises with South Korea, Trump effectively calmed North Korean qualms about the American threat on the Korean peninsula. Even with American concessions, North Korea had little to show in exchange, aside from a reaffirmation of good intentions. But to Trump, that sufficed, regardless of the uncertainty that it raised anew.

This uncertainty would quickly come to a head in February 2019 at the Hanoi summit, which built on the foundation of Singapore. The two delegations had left the Singapore summit with intensive talks complete and an agreement reached, yet one vague line remained: “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” 

Pyongyang expected that the United States would lift its sanctions and withdraw its nuclear presence on the Korean peninsula in exchange for its promise to halt nuclear activity. Washington expected that Pyongyang would unilaterally surrender all of its nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang, as expected, refused. Instead, it asked for relief from sanctions which North Korea saw as an impediment to its economy. Pyongyang thought that it had upheld its part of the agreement in Singapore—it had given its word that it would denuclearize—and that it was now time for the United States to reciprocate. The United States did not agree.

That disagreement is now where the US-North Korea denuclearization talks stand. It was agreed that both sides wanted denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It was not agreed how both powers would achieve it. To the Trump administration, denuclearization means that Pyongyang will completely rid itself of its nuclear program. To the Kim regime, it means that Washington will reciprocate Pyongyang’s actions by withdrawing its “nuclear umbrella,” a guarantee of protection for its ally South Korea through the deterrent of nuclear weapons. These incompatible perspectives caused a roadblock, making the future of denuclearization very unpredictable. There is some bilateral interest in restarting talks, but North Korea refuses to do so until the United States fulfills its demands.

The next constructive step might be for the United States to work with South Korea to try a “bottom-up” approach in dialogue with North Korea, which would allow for greater empowerment of lower-level officials involved in policy-making. Part of the issue with Singapore and Hanoi was the institution of a “top-down” system of negotiation, meaning that leaders and not policy-makers were the active participants in defining the expectations for each power. With a “bottom-up” approach, lower-level policymakers on both delegations would be empowered to outline a more substantive approach to denuclearization. 

But this too seems unlikely. In April 2019, South Korea revealed it intended to continue Singapore and Hanoi’s top-down approach to denuclearization talks, though there has been little input from South Korea about that since then. Unless the United States somehow convinces its ally to change its strategy for denuclearization, the “bottom-up” approach may not even make it on the table for discussion. 

What The US 2020 Election Means For Denuclearization

Further complicating negotiations are the American elections occurring in November. With American presidents being notoriously inconsistent with the foreign policy approaches of their predecessors, there is objectively little incentive for both Koreas to attempt further negotiation with an administration that may not be in the White House for much longer. If the November elections result in a new American president, a shift in foreign policy objectives would necessitate a restart of US-North Korea denuclearization.

As the American election cycle draws to a close this November, Pyongyang has several factors to consider. Chief among these is the potential for a Democratic president in the White House by January 2021. In that case, a serious shift in foreign policy would occur. The remaining candidates, Sanders and Biden, both disapprove of Trump’s negotiation tactics, viewing his meetings and summits as little else but show. That being said, they have also stated that they are willing to pursue the same leader-to-leader tactics (to varying degrees) as long as concrete results are attained. However, Biden and Sanders seem to diverge on the topic of sanctions: Biden is willing to tighten sanctions until Pyongyang complies with the dismantling of its nuclear missile programs, whereas Sanders is not. 

There is fairly little that can be known definitively about how Biden would interact with Pyongyang, but judging by his rhetoric, Biden’s policy toward North Korea seems to be less likely to draw concessions and more likely to return to Obama-era foreign policy, when the United States was neither punitive nor beneficent. Biden does not completely subscribe to vilifying Kim (like Bush), nor does he subscribe to aiding the North Korean government by loosening sanctions (like Clinton). He wants to further negotiations, at least in part by coordinating with American allies and China, though it is unclear how that coordination would occur and what end it would amount to. 

There is concern about Trump’s legitimization of dictatorship, and Biden has expressed his disapproval of the “photo-op”-like nature of Trump and Kim’s meetings; he considers them to be unsuccessful and detrimental to securing concessions. Again, however, aside from these statements, determining what a potential Biden-administration North Korea policy would look like is very difficult. He is unclear on his stance on sanctions as well as how much or how little his administration would be willing to concede in order to encourage denuclearization. Based on the little information he has provided, if Biden is elected president, it might equally be projected that his administration will be overshadowed by Trump’s disruptions to the diplomatic status quo. If Biden is able to enact change, it would likely be small and uneventful. But the level of change that can be projected to occur is highly dependent on his preparedness to work with allies, as well as Pyongyang. Given what little information Biden has currently provided, he may be just as unprepared as Trump in negotiating with the hermit kingdom.

Sanders, on the other hand, seems to have a clearer approach. For him, complete denuclearization is a goal for the long term but unlikely to be attained soon. He is more willing than Biden to meet with Kim in person. He believes that while there is not anything inherently flawed with the leader-to-leader style of negotiation, the Trump administration’s failing is in its lack of preparation. Understanding that North Korea is unlikely to comply to American demands unless it receives something in return, Sanders proposes that sanctions relief should not be used as the only incentive for North Korean denuclearization. Instead, they could be used in exchange for a shorter term goal like frozen fissile development, which would halt North Korean development of nuclear energy until further negotiations.

For now, denuclearization negotiations are still at a standstill. Awkward timing and poor planning have roadblocked the talks, and with the possibility of a new US president within the year, both North and South Korea have little reason to actively seek progress with the negotiations. In the event that the Trump administration remains for a second term, it seems likely that talks will pick up where they left off. In the case of a new president, however, the future attitude of the United States toward North Korea lies in the hands of the Democratic nominee.

The image used in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. It is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, and has not been altered. The original photo can be found here

Donna Son


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