11 Jul 2018

Keen observers of the North Korea nuclear issue could be forgiven for feeling utterly disappointed after the latest round of denuclearization talks between the reclusive hermit state and the United States.

Hoping to build on the momentum and agreement achieved during the historic summit held between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently travelled to Pyongyang to iron out the concrete deliverables and action plan behind the thinly worded Trump-Kim agreement.

Despite Pompeo’s assertion that he held “many hours of productive conversations” with his counterpart and achieved “progress on almost all of the central issues”, this was – embarrassingly – not a sentiment shared by the North.

Pyongyang’s statement after the negotiations emphasized Washington’s “gangster-like” demands, lamenting that “the attitude and stance the United States showed in the first high-level meeting was no doubt regrettable. Our expectations and hopes were so naïve it could be called foolish”. The statement also carried a distinct warning – that continued unsatisfactory behaviour from Washington could “rattle our willingness for denuclearization”.

This stunning – and publicly-aired – dissonance in how both sides interpreted the negotiations reveals that a consensus on the ways and means to achieve denuclearisation is not imminent. Under these circumstances, what can the United States do to achieve a U.S.-North Korea breakthrough and make good on the objectives of the Trump-Kim agreement?

The analysis suggests that three significant shifts in the execution of U.S. foreign policy are needed.

Mental Framing

The first shift is that of the American mental framing of the North Korean issue, specifically the delusion that Washington has the upper hand, or that, as President Trump has famously declared, “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”. Both, unfortunately, are categorically untrue.

Kim holds all the cards in the negotiations, by virtue of the fact that the U.S. is the party demanding something be done about the North’s nuclear weapons.

If status quo was maintained – with no deal struck – Washington would continue to face the threat of nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles pointed at the U.S. mainland.

The threat has not diminished despite the administration’s rhetoric, and Washington remains disadvantaged with the negotiating hand it was dealt.

To truly resolve the nuclear issue, Washington must abandon the wishful thinking that it can hold back on providing concessions to the North until the latter delivers on its promise to denuclearize.

This, while ideal in the current U.S. frame of the issue, will not happen.

In other words, if denuclearization is to proceed, Washington must acknowledge the reality that it holds a poor hand and be prepared to offer the concessions – at least at the beginning – that Pyongyang desires.

This includes agreeing to end the Korean War and offering Pyongyang security guarantees, both of which are conditions it has put forth.

Calling Kim’s bluff – for example, threatening to tear up the Trump-Kim agreement, and a return to the policy of maximum pressure or even a preventative strike on the North – is also unlikely to yield results against a shrewd Pyongyang leadership that has utilized similar tactics for decades.

Graduated Policy Responses

The second key adjustment is the need to enhance the U.S. policy toolkit, such that proportional responses are made available to incentivise or reward Pyongyang’s ‘good behaviour’.

Today, the Trump administration paints the narrative in stark terms – North Korea must denuclearize, or it will continue to face harsh economic sanctions and perhaps even all-out nuclear warfare.

The levers that the U.S. holds are also massive game-changers, such as acquiescing to the formal end of the Korean War, providing a security guarantee never to invade the North, the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea or the lifting of economic sanctions.

It does not appear that there are smaller policy responses in the U.S. toolkit to prod Pyongyang, in lieu of using the big sticks articulated above.

At the negotiating table, it is essential to develop clear, graduated levels of policy responses, instead of constantly leveraging the high-stakes bargaining chips that Washington is brandishing at the moment.

Negotiations should not be positioned as an ‘all or nothing’ deal; instead, the deal must comprise stepwise rewards when certain denuclearization milestones are reached.

Pyongyang has found such smaller carrots – such as the return of U.S. soldiers’ remains from the Korean War – to incentivise positive U.S. behaviour; it is prudent for Washington to do likewise.

Public Communications

The third change needed is for the U.S. to henceforth avoid making overly-optimistic and wholly unwarranted statements that unduly raise hopes of imminent denuclearization.

The more such statements are made, the more convinced Pyongyang is that the U.S. is desperate to conclude a deal.

Desperation is the last thing one needs in a negotiation.

It is no secret that the party more eager to demonstrate results suffers at the negotiating table, because the importance it places on getting agreement deprioritizes what is to be agreed in the first place.

In other words, the unjustified confidence the administration has portrayed thus far has given the North reason to believe that the U.S. weighs securing an agreement above the concrete terms and conditions of the agreement.

This further disadvantages America, as North Korea could double down on its demands and the U.S. would be hard-pressed to decline given its self-imposed urgency to announce the negotiating outcomes.

This rectification in the manner the administration presents its public communications would accrue gains for the U.S., not least because Pyongyang is monitoring Washington’s every public move for signs of weakness that it may exploit.

Managing the U.S.-North Korea Impasse

As I have argued elsewhere, Washington’s competent management of the Trump-Kim summit, and its ability to secure a signed agreement with Pyongyang, are to be lauded. But the follow-up by the U.S. Department of State in working out the details leaves much to be desired.

The current impasse between the two states can only be addressed if Washington rectifies its frame of mind, develops a robust policy response toolkit, and addresses its own tendencies to over-promise and under-deliver.

Against a belligerent North Korea keen to maximize its gains and minimize its concessions, one can only hope these issues are addressed sooner rather than later.