It is a measure of the difficulty in negotiating with North Korea — and the prospects for eventual success — that Washington and Pyongyang cannot even agree on the proper characterization of their meeting in Stockholm last weekend. U.S. State Department officials called the first round of working-level talks in eight months a “good discussion,” while their North Korean counterparts said the negotiations “broke down” and the lead diplomat pronounced himself “very displeased.”
Ultimately, the differences may not matter: U.S. President Donald Trump remains committed to his relationship with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, regardless of progress — or lack thereof — in nuclear talks.
There have been no negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea since the February Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim ended early without an agreement. The two men met again, briefly, in June, when Kim took up Trump’s invitation to join him at the Demilitarized Zone when the Trump visited after the Osaka Group of 20 summit. While that moment made history — Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit North Korea when he stepped across the line dividing the Korean Peninsula — it had no impact on the nuclear stalemate.
North Korea accuses Washington of failing to live up to promises made at the first summit between Trump and Kim, in Singapore in 2018. Pyongyang is incensed that the U.S. and South Korea continue to hold military exercises, arguing that they are a breach of the agreement signed at that meeting, are a rehearsal for an invasion and prove that the U.S. has hostile intent toward the North. Pyongyang demands that the U.S., as proof of its goodwill, end the crippling economic sanctions that it has imposed. In the absence of such a gesture, Pyongyang will not provide an accounting of its nuclear program.
For the U.S., Japan and many other countries, North Korea’s logic is backward. They insist that Pyongyang must first declare its nuclear capabilities and facilities, and only after it has disarmed will sanctions be lifted.
In hopes of ending this standoff, negotiators met in Stockholm on Friday and Saturday to find common ground. That effort proved fruitless. After a day of talks, North Korea’s envoy, Kim Myong Gil, derided his counterparts for showing up “empty-handed,” and said the breakdown was “entirely due to the United States’ failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson countered the U.S. team brought “creative ideas” and “a number of new initiatives” to the talks. After the U.S. said it was prepared to resume the negotiations in two weeks, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson rejected that option, saying the country had “no intention to hold such sickening negotiations” until “the U.S. takes a substantial step to make complete and irreversible withdrawal of the hostile policy toward the DPRK.”
If negotiations have gone nowhere, North Korea’s military capabilities have steadily improved. While it has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests its missile modernization program marches forward. It has had eight missile tests since the collapse of the Hanoi summit.
The most recent was the Oct. 3 launch of a new, submarine-based ballistic missile that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone near Shimane Prefecture. The test occurred a day before the nuclear talks were to resume, a pointed reminder of the stakes. North Korea has warned Washington that the U.S. must make “a bold decision” by the end of the year or face the consequences. Envoy Kim explained that his country’s readiness to honor its moratorium on nuclear and missile testing “entirely depends on the stance of the United States.”
Pyongyang knows that the only audience that counts is Trump. North Korea has warned that Kim is only interested in meeting Trump again if the U.S. president takes a bold step. That gambit plays to Trump’s ego and effectively marginalizes working-level talks. The strategy appears to be working. Trump has been silent about the tests and the breakdown of the talks, but has hinted that another meeting is possible and soon, while noting that North Korea must denuclearize.
Meanwhile, Japan, South Korea and other governments complain about the tests, noting that they are violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions. This week, the UNSC will hold consultations on last week’s tests after Britain, France and Germany called for a meeting.
While Japan continues to demand implementation of the Singapore declaration, there is concern that Trump cares only about North Korea’s ability to threaten the U.S. homeland and will only object to long-range missile tests, a position that seems to decouple Japan’s security from that of the U.S. Last week’s launch is proof that such a focus is dangerous. If North Korea can fire a nuclear weapon from a submarine, it does not need a ICBM to threaten the U.S. North Korea moves forward as nuclear talks stand still.