The Trump-Kim showdown

From enemies to friends? The United States and North Korea are on good speaking terms, but will it lead to complete denuclearization?

The Trump-Kim showdown AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Just before entering office, Donald J Trump was warned by his predecessor, Barack Obama, that North Korea was America’s most serious, pressing national security concern. Obama was right. By January 2017, when Trump was inaugurated, North Korea was an insular, repressive, secretive nation with an expanding arsenal of increasingly advanced nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Kim Jong-un regime possessed the ability to directly menace US interests throughout Asia, including American allies, and, even more alarmingly, parts of the American homeland. 

To his credit, Trump got to work right away on the North Korean puzzle. The drawback, of course, was that, almost immediately, things got worse on his watch. Hostility, nuclear and missile tests, threats of war and rumors of war planning characterized the state of Washington-Pyongyang relations. By mid-2017, experts routinely estimated the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula at about 50 percent. But then something dramatic happened. By late 2017, US-North Korea ties began to improve. And by the summer of 2018, talk of cooperation and even détente filled the news wires. Not only that, for the first time in the history of their joint relations, the leaders of the United States and North Korea met personally, in Singapore, and by all accounts had a warm, genuine encounter. In fact, the Trump-Kim summit went so well Trump himself declared, “North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat.” While it is way too premature to take that statement at face value, for various domestic and international political reasons, it is clear that US-North Korea relations are on the best footing in more than 20 years. Indeed, the depth and speed of the change in Washington-Pyongyang ties has been rather remarkable

This seeming shift in ties begs several questions: notably, what should we make of all of this? How did it happen? What has been achieved as a result of the flurry of US-North Korea diplomatic activity during the last year? Is this diplomacy sustainable? And if not, what happens next? This essay attempts to answer these questions. 

The road to diplomacy

At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, North Korea engaged in a host of missile and nuclear tests, demonstrating the nation’s increasingly advanced military, one that was seemingly able to protect the Kim government and threaten regional and global powers. At the same time, Trump and North Korean state media engaged in tit-for-tat verbal attacks and bluster. Of note was Trump’s infamous “fire and fury” statement in August 2017, which warned the Kim regime against making further provocative statements and actions. All of this saber rattling unnerved the international community, which feared a second Korean War. And for good reason, considering that US news reports indicated Trump had ordered the US military to draw up plans for various kinds of military interventions.

But by the end of 2017, the situation on the peninsula dramatically shifted. The United States and North Korea were consistently engaged in talks via the so-called New York channel. And in a stunning development, in April 2018 the White House revealed that former CIA chief and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had held several meetings with Kim. As evidence, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted out two photos of an awkward-looking Kim and Pompeo shaking hands. Few details of their talks were revealed other than that Kim was apparently able to credibly communicate to Pompeo his desire to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula, which allowed the momentum in Pyongyang-Washington relations to continue.

And as that was happening, North and South Korea were also warming to each other, eventually paving the way for a North Korean delegation to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics – actually, the North and South marched in the opening ceremonies under a Korean unification banner.  

At the end of April 2018, in a headline-making event, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim. It was the first time North Korean and South Korean leaders had met since 2007, and the first time a North Korean leader had set foot in South Korea since 1953. In the Kim-Moon meeting, both leaders made strong peace overtures: pledging formally to end the Korean War, rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons, curtail the arms race and other hostile activities between the nations, and engage the United States and China in four-way talks on the peninsula, among other things. All of this was enshrined in the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. It was even revealed that North Korea planned to dismantle its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. All sides were encouraged.

Why did the politico-security environment on the peninsula change so sharply and suddenly? And why did Kim, who had yet to make a foreign visit as North Korea’s leader prior to 2018, come out of the cold and embrace his role as a statesman? Two popular takes have been advanced to answer this query.

First, the Trump administration believes that coercive pressure and credible threats from the United States, in combination with good leadership from Team Trump, have driven Kim to make nice with the United States and its allies in East Asia. Let’s parse out this logic. The narrative put forward by the Trump administration is that a deft combination of hard and soft power has induced cooperation from Kim Jong-un. First, America’s overwhelming military might, the military exercises near North Korea and implicit and overt threats to use force against North Korea, according to the White House, have caused Kim to believe that the United States is hell-bent on forcing his nation to disarm. And so to head off a disastrous war, including one that could possibly topple his regime and place his life in danger, Kim has come to the negotiating table. 

Second, vigorous diplomacy by former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Pompeo and Trump himself, who ostensibly had communicated directly with Kim prior to the Singapore summit, worked, according to Team Trump. It enabled the United States to credibly reassure and woo Kim, letting him know that if he decides to engage with the United States and its allies, they are willing and ready to deal in good faith with him. It also paved the way for multilateral buy-in from South Korea, Japan and China for a loosely synced approach to North Korea – that is, enforcing existing sanctions on North Korea, refraining from provoking Kim, supporting talks with Pyongyang, and so on – thereby creating an effective diplomatic coalition. 

There are dissenters, however, who think the White House has way overstated its role as a productive force in drawing out Kim for dialogue and cooperation. These skeptics – largely, though not exclusively, academics and North Korea watchers – argue that Kim has been eager to engage in global diplomacy because he finally feels confident enough in his domestic political standing. After years of consolidating his political power inside North Korea, removing or even killing political rivals and many of the old guard (including relatives), Kim has essentially “coup-proofed” his regime. He likely feels strong enough politically to venture out of his nation’s territory, deal with the major powers and even offer some concessions on peace, weapons and joint dialogue without fear of being toppled by opportunistic, hard-line internal opponents. 

Further, according to security experts, Kim is likely emboldened by his country’s possession of a steadily improving nuclear and ballistic missile program, one that possibly gives him the ability to hit, according to the latest estimates, all of the US homeland. In effect, North Korea has a deterrent force that is capable of mitigating security threats and bullying from the United States. This means Kim has the kind of leverage in talks with the United States that his father, Kim Jong-il, never had during negotiations with the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations. This line of argument avers that the United States should be under no illusion it drew Kim to talks; instead, Kim induced others to meet with him, with the belief he now possesses enhanced power and leverage.

The Singapore summit

All of the aforementioned diplomatic maneuvers were a prelude to the main course – the much-hyped Trump-Kim summit, which continued the era of good feelings among South Korea, North Korea and the United States. In early March 2018, Kim made an offer via South Korea to meet Trump, who quickly accepted the olive branch. There was a hiccup along the way, as Trump briefly canceled the summit. In the week or two prior to Trump’s cancellation, dialogue between North Korea and the United States had slowed. In fact, there had been zero of the usual requisite planning and coordination between the advance and security teams of North Korea and the United States ahead of the Kim-Trump summit. This led US officials, including Trump, to believe that the North was getting cold feet and was ready to pull out of the talks. Not wanting to suffer the massive embarrassment of being stood up by Kim, according to The New York Times, Trump pre-emptively called off his meeting with Kim. 

But soon after Trump’s cancellation, the diplomatic momentum picked up. The advance teams of the United States and North Korea began talking again, preparations for the summit started in earnest and the meeting, as originally planned, was back on schedule. In the end, the June 12 summit in Singapore went off without a hitch and was a global headline grabber. Meantime, the results of the summit were a mixed bag of outcomes and uncertainties. On the one hand, it is good that Trump and Kim met and talked, and that the meeting seems to have gone well. They have established, it appears, a good rapport. Indeed, Kim was rather smiley throughout the public portion of their gathering. This could pave the way for a better relationship between the United States and North Korea now, especially given Trump’s insistence on personalizing US foreign policy, and going forward, beyond Trump’s tenure as president. And the happy vibes from the meeting might portend some actual progress down the line on eliminating/dismantling North Korea’s nukes.

On the other hand, the signed Trump-Kim signed agreement – essentially, the document that listed the results of the summit – is puzzling, especially in light of America’s national interests.

The Singapore agreement, at bottom, was a one-sided affair that does not really neuter or freeze Kim’s nuclear arsenal. The main end goal of the document, “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” something that has been pledged by Pyongyang for 20 plus years, is not nearly the same as the Trump administration’s stated objective of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization, or CVID. CVID, as envisioned by the White House, pertains only to North Korea, and it is to be lasting and durable: permanently and forever neutering the North’s ability to produce military-grade nuclear material and nuclear weapons. This agreement does not reach these lofty goals.

Furthermore, the United States has now given up quite a bit to Kim. Trump now has met Kim, bestowing prestige and legitimacy upon him, his government and his nuclear program. Trump lavished Kim with much praise, calling him “talented,” “smart” and “a tough negotiator,” among other things. In the afterglow of the summit, Trump, without advance consultation from key advisers or the military, announced his intention to end America’s “war games” with South Korea. Also, keep in mind that the summit offered domestic political benefits for Kim, enhancing his domestic image and appeal, as it has been used for propaganda purposes via glowingly positive press through state media and a state-created 42-minute video of Kim’s trip to and meetings in Singapore. 

In return, what did Kim give up? A freeze on nuclear and missile tests, a promise to return the remains of as many as 250 American POWs and a pledge to blow up a testing site were granted to the United States. These are concessions, yes, but arguably pale in comparison to how much Pyongyang received from Team Trump. Actually, it is pretty amazing that Kim, such a young and inexperienced leader, has been able to extract as much as he has from the United States via diplomacy. 

Additionally, the signed Singapore document is awfully vague and short on specifics. It does not mention anything about timetables for implementing Kim’s concessions, fails to mention how compliance with the agreement might be monitored and verified, and does not address how North Korea and the United States are going to define “denuclearization” in practice. It is the last point that is arguably the most important. If denuclearization is the name of the game, the heart of the talks, then it is extremely important that all sides define it in similar terms. 


The Trump administration, at least publicly, is optimistic that both sides are on the same page on denuclearization: the United States wants North Korea to eliminate its nuclear arsenal and mothball its nuclear program completely and irreversibly, and North Korea is willing to do so. Trump and Pompeo are on record saying that they firmly believe Kim has honestly bargained with them, and that he sincerely intends to denuclearize his country in line with American interests and demands. 

Policy experts and academics see the situation differently. They present two distinct criticisms. First, to them, Trump is staking his personal and political reputation as a dealmaker, as well as the security of the United States and East Asia, on his newfound and ill-advised trust for Kim. If the history of North Korean nuclear agreements is any guide, a history that includes a litany of broken commitments, there is little reason to so quickly and naively trust Kim. Why is Team Trump so eager to trust Kim?

It is pretty amazing that Kim, such a young and inexperienced leader, has been able to extract as much as he has from the United States via diplomacy.

For starters, Trump’s personality is relevant here. A denuclearized North Korea appeals to his well-known narcissism. He has already broached the idea of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis North Korea. Plus, Trump would get to revel in solving the intractable, insoluble puzzle that his predecessors could not. He would get to credibly proclaim himself as a global statesman, a man of plans and action, a problem solver.

But there are more than personal factors at play here. Trump also has political incentives to reach a deal with North Korea. In short, he needs a political win, and North Korea is a potential political goldmine for him. Sure, North Korea does offer a host of pitfalls but maybe not to Trump. At this point in his presidency, when he is facing the prospect of being a one-term leader, if not outright impeached before his term ends, Trump has little to lose politically. For the bulk of his presidency, his approval rating has hovered around 35 percent, his political party, the GOP, is wildly unpopular, and his record of political accomplishments, other than the heavily criticized tax bill, is lacking. It can’t get much worse for him.

In the parlance of prospect theory, a tool used by economists, Trump is operating from a “domain of losses,” and in that domain individuals in general, and Trump in particular, are more likely to make risky decisions. Think of this in terms of gambling. Empirical evidence tells us that gamblers who are on a losing streak often do not stop betting; they instead often continue on, hoping to reverse their fortunes by doing the improbable: winning big. That is one way to look at Trump’s approach to North Korea. He is hoping to win big so as to turn around his political fortunes and help save his presidency.

Second, policy experts and academics such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar Vipin Narang argue that it would be foolish for North Korea to bargain sincerely about its nuclear program, let alone actually agree to dismantle it. Such an agreement, and actually complying with it, would remove the deterrent capabilities of the Kim regime, making it vulnerable to invasion, much like Iraq and Libya. And we know, based on behind-the-scenes reporting on the views of senior-level North Korean officials and press releases from state media, that Pyongyang is aware of the lessons of Libya and Iraq: the failure of both states to possess weapons of mass destruction is directly connected to the demise of the Hussein and Gaddafi regimes and the loss of their lives.  

The nuclear experts have logic and history on their side. After all, there has only been one country that has disarmed after indigenously producing a nuclear weapon: South Africa in 1989. Additionally, nuclear deterrence has been a powerful force for preventing major wars and conflicts between nuclearized states, and nuclear weapons have shored up the security vulnerabilities for weak and insecure states, no matter who their adversaries are (nuclearized or non-nuclear states). 

And North Korea, mind you, is very insecure, with formidable powers on its borders, all with the ability to encircle and choke Pyongyang’s access to the rest of the world. Moreover, the United States, with thousands of troops, several military bases and other military assets throughout Asia, as well as its longstanding animus toward Pyongyang and its propensity for regime change, is a naturally ominous and threatening actor to North Korea. Indeed, ever since the Korean War, the Kim dynasty has feared a second round in which the United States decides, once and for all, to topple the regime and reunite the peninsula, with Seoul running the entire show. The nuclear experts wonder why Kim would overturn decades of North Korean thinking about the United States and make a binding nuclear deal, one that could make Pyongyang even more vulnerable to an outside attack or invasion.

Just because Trump is nice to him? Or because Kim is feeling the fallout of years of isolation and economic sanctions? The critics are highly skeptical that Kim is prepared to comply with Team Trump’s goal of total denuclearization, believing the costs are too high to absorb relative to any benefits proposed by the United States and its allies. 

Even more troubling, in late June, NBC News and The Washington Post reported that despite Kim’s pledges in Singapore, North Korea’s military nuclear program was continuing full steam ahead. In mid-September, as Strategic Review was going to press, The New York Times reported that Kim was continuing to manufacture nuclear bombs as quickly as possible, while “conducting no public nuclear demonstrations and creating no crises, allowing Mr. Trump to portray a denuclearization effort as on track.”

In short, there is no tangible sign of North Korean denuclearization. Indeed, anonymous US officials claim “there’s no evidence that they are decreasing stockpiles, or that they have stopped their production.” And North Korea has more than one secret nuclear site, perhaps multiple sites, that Kim has been loath to disclose to the United States. What is Kim doing? At the moment, it is difficult to tell, given that details are still a bit murky, although one can speculate that Kim is trying to drive a hard bargain, attempting to extract all the concessions he can from Team Trump. 

Even if the nuclear experts are right, that does not mean all is lost, although the odds of a breakthrough are still long. To get Kim to move closer to America’s position on denuclearization, the United States will have to make deep, widespread concessions, above and beyond what it has already given North Korea. Pyongyang might be willing to bargain away parts of its nuclear program, such as a permanent nuclear freeze or a reduction in arms, but only in exchange for very substantial concessions by the United States, such as pulling South Korea from America’s nuclear umbrella, removing US troops from Asia, normalizing relations with Pyongyang, and so on. In short, things the United States would be strategically unwise to do. Plus, such concessions would trigger extreme pressure from establishment types in Washington and inside Trump’s inner circle to resist making deep concessions to North Korea. And then there would be the concern that caving in to the demands of rogue proliferators just offers other potential nuclear states incentive to test the United States and its allies. 

All of that said, as strange as it might sound, Trump is probably best positioned, relative to his predecessors, to grant North Korea at least more of what it wants. Why? Doing so bucks the conventional wisdom of experts and pundits on the crisis, making it an anti-establishment move, and keeps the United States out of a foreign war – both of which are entirely consistent with Trump’s “America first” platform. Already, Trump has hinted that he might remove US troops from South Korea, citing their presence as costly and provocative to the North. 

Post-Singapore bargaining

Despite much hope and hype, diplomatic progress post-Singapore, on several fronts, has been slow. Let’s begin with the good news. Both sides are continuing to talk and attempting to build off and refine each side’s Singapore commitments, and Secretary Pompeo personally visited Pyongyang in early July. From May through August 2018, the United States received the remains of 55 American soldiers who died in the Korean War, a missile and nuclear test moratorium, and the requisite follow-through to destroy the Punggye-ri test site and dismantle the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. And to reinforce the diplomatic track, Pompeo named former Ford Motor Company executive and National Security Council staffer Stephen Biegun special representative to North Korea, a position that had been vacant for six months. 

There are several downsides, unfortunately. As mentioned above, North Korea is still making advances in its production of nuclear material and nuclear weapons. And in late July, The Washington Post reported: “Diplomats say the North Koreans have canceled follow-up meetings, demanded more money and failed to maintain basic communications, even as the once-isolated regime’s engagements with China and South Korea flourish.” And frustration within some quarters of Team Trump is settling in, as members, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Pompeo, grasp the realities of dealing with a prickly, hard to pin down North Korea. In an Aug. 7 appearance on Fox News, Bolton proclaimed: “The US has lived up the Singapore Declaration. It’s just North Korea that has not taken the steps that we feel are necessary to denuclearize.” 

Even more troubling, the North has eschewed any discussion of specific timelines and commitments, and the United States has made little headway in fleshing out a working definition of denuclearization. In order to jump-start these processes, according to Vox’s Alex Ward, Pompeo on more than one occasion has floated the idea of North Korea handing “over 60 to 70 percent of its nuclear warheads within six to eight months; the US or a third party, likely another country, takes possession of them and removes them from North Korea.” But those proposals have gone nowhere, having been rebuffed by Kim Yong-chol, North Korea’s lead negotiator. This has caused some frustration within the Trump administration. Indeed, on Aug. 24, Trump called off a planned trip by Pompeo to North Korea, citing the lack of progress on denuclearization – although Trump did leave the door open for future talks and visits by Team Trump. 

Meantime, North Korea is also buckling a bit under the pressure. Some of the erratic and irresponsible rhetoric has already returned. Specifically, after July talks with Pompeo and other US officials, the North Koreans released a statement criticizing the US delegation, calling Trump’s team “gangsters” and “robber-like,” and describing the tone and tenor of the talks as “regrettable.” The North is displeased that the United States has not reduced the burden of the devastating economic sanctions placed on it, despite the warm Kim-Trump gathering. Moreover, North Korea also wants the United States to draft an official peace treaty to end the Korean War and to work to normalize US-North Korea relations.   

The Trump administration claims publicly that it is on the same page as Pyongyang, though it is far from certain that is the case in reality. In some ways, it seems like both sides are operating on parallel tracks, with no apparent intersection or mutually acceptable outcome in sight. After all, the current state of Washington-Pyongyang relations can be summed up as follows: (1) the United States, believing it has given the North considerable freebies and afraid of being suckered, wants the North to make deeper and faster concessions; and (2) the North sees the continued pressure placed on it by the United States as an ominous sign that parts of the US government have imperialist designs on it, necessitating the continuation of its missile and nuclear program. So, we are still in a standoff. All of this, then, suggests there is still a long way to go, a path with many potential obstacles ahead. Below I discuss some of the most salient potential pitfalls.  

Revenge of the American hard-liners?

Going forward, one of the most salient things to watch for is how the United States reacts if North Korea continues to drag its feet on implementing the Singapore agreement. Or worse, what happens if North Korea works to undermine the deal or the spirit of the agreement (continued nuclear advances, concealing nuclear advances, missile tests, threatening neighbors, etc)? In that case, what happens

next? Is war the default option if talks go nowhere or break down? That’s what Bolton, the hard-line national security adviser, might hope for. Bolton is infamous in Washington policy circles as a neoconservative hawk, someone who sees American military power as a positive change agent, and regime change (of autocrats and despots) as a primary goal of US foreign policy. Unfortunately, Bolton, as the national security adviser, sits in the White House and has Trump’s ear on a daily basis. During the Singapore summit Bolton was present, although he was also sidelined, as dovish talks and optimism ruled the day. But he is an important part of Trump’s inner circle and unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. 

If continued Washington-Pyongyang negotiations are not immediately successful, both sides ought to decide to take a breather for a while and then resume dialogue, whether at a very senior level or via the New York channel. That would make the most sense. The problem is that if diplomatic progress is not quickly apparent, the hawks in Washington (both inside and outside Team Trump), sensing a political opportunity, will strike back. Already, Bolton has rather ominously stated that he expects further US-North Korea talks to reveal quickly Pyongyang’s nuclear intentions – whether or not it fully intends to disarm. If he discerns Kim’s intent to drag out negotiations, playing for time while he advances North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, do not be surprised if Bolton tries to shift the forum from the diplomatic roundtable to the battlefield. And from there, we could very well see a public relations campaign from hard-liners for war, whether a so-called bloody nose strike or a more ambitious effort to topple the Kim regime. How will Trump respond at that point? 

Trump’s base is largely against foreign wars, seeing them as costly distractions from problems at home. And Trump himself has expressed some pride in challenging the conventional wisdom that war with North Korea is probable, even inevitable. But what happens if North Korea’s failure to denuclearize in a timely manner causes Trump to think he has been suckered by Kim? This is where Trump’s erratic and unpredictable personality once again rears its head. Trump does have a history, both in and out of office, of reacting badly to what he sees as unfair situations and people who have double-crossed him. Just look at how he has handled relations with the US media, various Democratic members of Congress, Mexico, China and Western European nations such as Germany, among others. These are actors who Trump considers to have duped, ripped off and undermined both the United States and Trump, personally and politically. In general, he has tended to escalate disputes with them, making them worse in the process. Already, US reports indicate that Trump has privately fumed at staffers, frustrated and irritated at the lack of progress in implementing the Singapore agreement. 

This begs several questions. How long is Trump willing to allow the North to slow-roll attempts by the United States to advance talks and make diplomatic progress? Does an angry and spiteful Trump lash out at Kim, once again escalating hostilities with the North? Does Trump allow the hard-liners to win the day by acceding to their wishes for war? Regrettably, it is possible. And that means the North Korean crisis is not yet fully out of the danger zone.  

The Trump administration claims publicly that it is on the same page as Pyongyang, although it is far from certain that is the case in reality.

The China factor

Another storyline to follow moving forward is the China factor. Surely, because of its power and proximity, China matters a great deal here. But it is much more than that. It is the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang. China is North Korea’s lifeline to the world. It offers North Korea substantial trade, food and energy supplies, diplomatic cover and security, among many other things. And it does so all in the hope that the Kim regime remains upright and stable.  

Given North Korea’s dependence on China, the United States has for years begged Beijing to turn the screws on Pyongyang, so that Kim would become desperate enough to bargain openly and honestly with Washington – if not outright unilaterally dismantle its WMD program, much like Libya’s Gaddafi. But worries about domestic political stability and the possibilities for widespread chaos and turmoil inside North Korea, with all of that spilling over into China, has made Beijing reluctant to take harsh measures to keep Pyongyang in line. But embarrassment and frustration about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, which have mocked existing UN resolutions and earned the opprobrium of the international community, caused China to cave in to US demands in 2017. China cut or curtailed a host of goods and services to North Korea, most notably coal and oil, much to the delight of Team Trump. 

Once the North, South and United States hopped on the diplomatic pathway in 2017, each party did a reasonably decent job of keeping China in the loop on progress and setbacks. And China has approved of the ongoing moves, which makes sense given its longstanding desire for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, several analysts claimed that China was an ancillary winner of the Singapore summit, precisely because the good vibes between Trump and Kim, as well as the signed agreement, play right into Beijing’s national interests. 

But now that Trump has personally warmed to Kim, some ominous signs have surfaced. To begin, China is softening its position. Since the start of the diplomatic overtures by the North, China has met with Kim multiple times, likely as a way to insert itself into the situation. Basically, the meetings are to remind Kim that China is his patron, to show the world that China sees itself as a major player on the Korean Peninsula and to ensure that Kim’s bargaining with the South and the United States does not run afoul of Chinese interests. Further, as a way to poke the United States, with which it is engaged in a trade war, China, along with Russia, is reducing the pressure on Kim, relaxing its restrictions on what comes and goes at the China-North Korea border. That has infuriated the United States, because Washington wants the extant set of multilateral coercive tools to remain in place until North Korea demonstrates much more progress on disarming. Interestingly, Trump himself publicly blames China – not North Korea or Kim Jong-un, whom Trump still praises – for the slow progress on Korean denuclearization.

How will China react and respond going forward? Specifically, how will it deal with the blame game from the United States? Will the tense US-China trade war continue to bleed into US efforts to disarm the North? And furthermore, is China still willing to enforce economic sanctions on Pyongyang and politically rein in the Kim regime, or are those policy aims things of the past? That will determine if Kim has the space and confidence to once again act as an irritant and disrupter, whether by provoking neighbors and regional powers via hostile statements, threats and missile tests, or even backsliding on his nuclear commitments. 


A final point to keep on your radar is North Korea’s attempt to decouple South Korea from the United States, a goal of the Kim regime, according to noted Asia expert Mira Rapp-Hooper. In short, this refers to North Korea’s ambition to cause a politico-security split between Seoul and Washington, to the point that South Korea leaves the Washington-led alliance in Asia. Successful decoupling could provide enormous security benefits. 

For instance, it could lead to the United States removing its troops from the South, removing its nuclear umbrella over Seoul, permanently stopping the South Korea-US military exercises, and so forth. Now, this attempt at decoupling might not work, as it is a long-shot outcome. After all, the United States does have treaty commitments with Seoul, the United States and South Korea have a long and jointly positive relationship, and both nations have a shared affinity for liberal values and institutions. Moreover, because the threat from North Korea is far from settled, and because of China’s continued expansion and heightened ambitions, any US president would face stiff resistance from Democrats, Congress, pundits, policy experts and academics in completely abandoning the South.

Surely, Kim recognizes all of this and probably does not believe decoupling will work. Still, it’s something the United States as well as Asia watchers ought to keep in mind. By meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and sweet-talking him with pledges of future peace and cooperation, Kim is giving Moon what he wants: a way out of the hostilities without resorting to war. He is also raising expectations inside South Korea of what is possible in its relations with the North. And by way of his vigorous diplomatic campaign in 2018, Kim has cleverly positioned himself as the good guy in talks with the United States. So if the negotiations become stalled or outright fail, he can claim that he tried his best and that his efforts were sincere. In short, “Blame the US, not me.” Should we get to that point, the relationship between the South and the United States would definitively be something to watch. 

Frankly, it is easy to see how fractures in the Seoul-Washington alliance could set in. Conceivably, the United States would expect the South to follow its lead in once again distancing itself from the North, perhaps even engaging in a joint pressure campaign against Pyongyang. But that is not what the South, neither the public nor the president, currently wants; it wants a breakthrough in the relationship with the North, leading to a sustainable peaceful relationship, not a return to a hyper-paranoid war footing. As a result, then, does Seoul resist demands from the United States? And if so, how does Washington respond to the South? 

A final word

US-North Korea relations are trending in a good direction, particularly when compared to the early days of the Trump presidency and the Obama years, which were generally plagued by distrust, noncommunication and reactive policy-making. Still, we are not out of the woods just yet. The diplomacy involving South Korea, North Korea and the United States, with China hovering in the background, remains a highly contingent process, one that can be pushed further in a mutually beneficial direction or knocked back to the dark days of “fire and fury,” as a result of various domestic and international political and strategic factors.

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to offer an exhaustive list of policy recommendations, one salient point does immediately come to mind. Given the high stakes, as recommended by Korean studies scholar Robert Kelly, it is best for all sides to take it slow, rather than push for a quick resolution to a very complicated set of issues. The counter to this recommendation is that endless talks allow North Korea enough time to continue to advance its conventional and nuclear forces – something that is currently happening. Even so, one major priority all sides should have right now is the continuation and maintenance of the ongoing diplomatic track, for that is the only avenue that will produce a political solution to the multi-decade North Korean crisis. 

A deliberate, cautious approach to diplomacy increases the chances that no side does anything rash, that definitions and timelines are adequately spelled out, that grievances are aired and properly addressed, and that confidence-building measures can take root and begin to foster mutual trust. And all of these things, individually and collectively, can create the conditions under which a sustainable, lasting agreement between North Korea and the United States is finally brokered. 

Kim has cleverly positioned himself as the good guy in talks with the United States.

So far, President Trump has expressed public support for refraining from compressing the timeline in talks with the North. In mid-July, he stated, “We have no time limit. We have no speed limit. We’re just going through the process, but the relationships are very good.” Does Trump privately believe that? And will he continue to let that guide his thoughts and decisions on North Korea? Maybe, maybe not. But if the diplomatic process is indeed played out according his “no time limit” pledge, then perhaps the US-North Korea relationship will achieve the long sought-after breakthrough that both sides so desperately want but have managed to let slip away in years past.


Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of the Center for World Conflict and Peace, and an adjunct professor at Saint Xavier University. Follow him on Twitter at @BNNelson74.

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