WASHINGTON – We are in the eye of the storm of U.S.-North Korea relations. Stakeholders are still assessing the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and all parties seem to be in a state of uneasy equilibrium.
North Korea adopted a typically minimalist posture in Hanoi. The North offered a terrible, one-sided deal in return for totally disproportionate moves by the United States to gut United Nations sanctions. Trump wisely decided to walk out. In the run-up to the summit, the North Koreans kept U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun at arm’s length, apparently believing they could hold out for a better deal from Trump. They showed up in Hanoi devoid of technical experts or fresh ideas.
It was useful for Kim personally to hear from Trump’s own lips that he refuses to make a bad deal. Now, perhaps the North can be induced to work more seriously with Biegun to piece together a workable agreement. South Korean officials have met with Biegun numerous times and may be in a position to help facilitate discussions between Biegun and North Korean officials. U.S.-North Korea working-level talks have the best chance of succeeding if both sides can agree on clear objectives, and a clear path forward to achieving them.
Following the Hanoi summit, the U.S. has attempted to demonstrate goodwill and maintain a positive atmosphere to facilitate such discussions. In addition to conciliatory statements by Trump, the U.S. and South Korea canceled their spring Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises, replacing them with a new, smaller exercise called Dong Maeng (Alliance). Trump also hastily squelched some new Treasury sanctions.
In contrast, Pyongyang has issued carefully calibrated signals to Washington and Seoul that it is dissatisfied with the Hanoi outcome, and that North Korea’s approach to denuclearization and North-South ties could rapidly worsen. North Korea is restoring facilities at a long-range rocket launch site, Tongchang-ri, that it dismantled last year and had highlighted to the U.S. as a confidence-building measure. Meanwhile, North Korea withdrew its personnel from the joint North-South liaison office at Kaesong, only returning several of them to the office after a few anxiety-filled days for Seoul.
In the short term, the U.S. is in a de facto double freeze, as long proposed by the Chinese: no North Korean nuclear or missile tests, and no major U.S.-South Korea military exercises. The U.S. should not allow frustration with the challenges of dealing with North Korea to lead it to consider this adequate, or to drift into a “strategic patience” posture, which failed so terribly under the Obama administration.
This situation is not sustainable. It allows North Korea to continue developing, producing and deploying fissile material, nuclear warheads and missiles, and it fails to address North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal, or arrest its export of nuclear or missile technology. Moreover, it ignores the fact that North Korea has a long pattern of causing provocations when it feels neglected — and Pyongyang is already signaling that such a provocation could be forthcoming.
The U.S. should continue to seek ways of engaging North Korea: It cannot let Pyongyang draw the conclusion that it has carte blanche to develop its weapons, or give it the excuse to act provocatively to get attention. Also, it needs to be seen taking every reasonable measure to resolve matters through negotiations, which will help legitimize additional sanctions or other coercive measures that it finds necessary. In this, it must recognize that “maximum pressure” is a tool, and an essential part of U.S. strategy, but by itself insufficient as a means of dealing with North Korea.
Accordingly, the U.S. should work with South Korea and, selectively, China, to help smooth a path to continued U.S.-North Korea talks — emphasizing the need for better working-level interaction between Biegun and North Korean interlocutors.
In these discussions, the U.S. should emphasize to the North that deeds, not just words, matter, and propose setting up a “pilot program” of North Korean disarmament as a confidence-building measure on the path to complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement. This could involve selecting several North Korean nuclear facilities, including all of Yongbyon, proposing the North dismantle them, and having U.S. and third-country inspectors monitor the operation. If the North balks, its intentions will be (even more) clear. The U.S. could consider circumscribed sanctions relief — such as lifting some coal sanctions — in return.
It is also critically important that the U.S. continue to coordinate with Japan and South Korea. The U.S. should also continue to reassure Tokyo and Seoul through continued strategic stability talks — and, crucially, an unshakable U.S. commitment to maintaining a major military presence in both countries — that the U.S. nuclear umbrella remains reliable, even in the face of North Korea’s efforts at strategic decoupling through production and deployment of ICBMs capable of striking continental U.S. targets.
The U.S. should also respond vigorously to the U.N. panel of experts’ report on North Korean sanctions busting, which painted a grim picture. This could include:
Ratcheting-up enforcement of existing sanctions, including by further strengthening and refocusing the Proliferation Security Initiative, endorsed by 107 countries, to interdict both North Korean weapons of mass destruction-related and sanctions-busting activities, such as ship-to-ship transfers of coal.
Refocusing the Container Security Initiative to target sanction-busting activities.
Clamping down further on North Korea’s access to the international financial system, including through secondary sanctions as required.
Convincing banks, commodity traders and insurers to monitor effectively the background of cargo ships and verify where they end up sailing once a transaction is made.
Intensifying diplomatic efforts to have third countries — particularly China and Russia — end contracts for North Korea’s indentured laborers within their borders by the end of the year.
Intensifying diplomatic efforts with third countries to have North Korean embassies closed and North Korean diplomats expelled for illicit activities (sanction busting, cybercrime, drug smuggling, etc.).
Developing a constructive, if not central, role for Russia to play with North Korea — Russia-hand Biegun could take the lead on this.
Offering specialized instruction to Chinese and Russian customs agents, whose governments may not be directing sanction-busting but are tolerant of it (particularly Moscow).
Conducting a review to consider rebuilding sea-based nuclear Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile forces unilaterally eliminated by the Obama administration.
Strengthening public diplomacy by emphasizing that all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in late 1991 as part of President George H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative; this led North and South to sign a joint declaration of commitment to a nuclear weapons-free Korea — which was followed by North Korea’s developing nuclear weapons.
Conducting negotiations is like riding a bicycle: You need to keep moving forward or you will fall over. While the U.S. considers, prepares and implements more stringent measures vis-a-vis North Korea, Washington should make clear that it is still open to negotiating with Pyongyang. Should that lead to a verifiable agreement founded firmly in reality, so much the better. However, should the negotiation bicycle collapse, the international community will be more supportive of sanctions or other coercive measures that the U.S. of necessity must pursue.
Thomas Cynkin is a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. This article first appeared in The National Interest.