What is the status of U.S. diplomacy toward North Korea? The problem with the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was that it did not achieve sufficient denuclearization commitments to empower working-level implementation. The problem with the Hanoi summit was that it failed to realize sanctions relief and hence did not empower South Korea to offer sufficient carrots to keep engagement going. Expecting no immediate benefits from diplomacy, North Korea returned to its cycle of stonewalling, threatening, and provoking.
Meanwhile, President Trump has come full circle in his rhetoric on North Korea. He made no reference to Pyongyang in his first joint address to Congress in February 2017. In contrast, his 2018 State of the Union forcefully argued that “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland” and pointedly criticized North Korean human rights violations.
Just one year later, Trump no longer spoke of the “depraved character of the North Korean regime.” In his 2019 State of the Union, he touted a “bold new diplomacy” for a “historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
In the year since, North Korea has refused to denuclearize and has conducted over a dozen missile-related tests. The Kim regime appears to be sizing up a U.S. president facing reelection after surviving impeachment. That Trump didn’t mention his diplomacy with Kim in his 2020 State of the Union suggests he is demoting North Korea in his reelection narrative.
If Washington can tolerate the status quo while preoccupied with domestic politics, the question is whether Pyongyang also prefers to wait out the current situation through November. An extended stalemate is possible, but it would be falsely reassuring for American strategists to believe that the U.S. successfully called North Korea’s “Christmas gift” bluff or that Beijing has Pyongyang under control.
North Korea is under increasing stress because of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. The revenue stream Kim was anticipating from tourism is running dry and the informal economy is struggling under draconian border and travel restrictions. North Korea itself might be suffering from coronavirus contagion. Yet it still conducts missile tests for its technical schedule of improving military capabilities. Rather than stay quiet while on lockdown, North Korea may be seeking economic concessions before elections in South Korea and the United States.
The Trump administration has tried to keep channels of communication open to reduce odds of unwanted escalation. But Pyongyang has signaled that “birthday card diplomacy” between leaders is not enough to restart denuclearization talks or pause provocations. North Korea complains about U.S. “hostile policies,” but does not specify realistic steps it wants Washington to take or what Pyongyang will do in exchange on denuclearization. Instead, the Kim regime wants to be rewarded for what it says it has done already, or to be paid for not testing a new “strategic weapon.”
With his tough policy toward Iran, Trump has demonstrated that negotiations with the United States don’t work like that. Nonetheless, the U.S. and South Korea have consistently shown willingness for diplomacy with North Korea. They have downscaled and rescheduled military exercises, soft-pedaled criticism, and withheld some additional sanctions—despite North Korean violations of inter-Korean agreements and UN Security Council Resolutions. If Pyongyang continues to boycott denuclearization talks and inter-Korean exchanges, it will miss the opportunity for benefits that the unusual pairing of Trump and President Moon is willing to offer.
For deterrence and negotiating leverage, Washington and Seoul first need to conclude an overdue defense cost-sharing agreement. The Trump administration wants South Korea to defray more costs than it currently does for U.S. bases, including for the operation of off-Peninsula American assets supporting Korean security. But Washington should consider the sizable financial contributions Seoul has already made to upgrading U.S. military facilities. From a solid alliance foundation, the U.S. and South Korea can explore angles to reengage North Korea, such as offering medical assistance in support of coronavirus recovery, women's health, and separated family reunions.