It’s been nearly three years since Barack Obama warned Donald Trump that the biggest danger he’d face would be North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Since then, Trump’s met three times with the North Korean dictator, including a made-for-TV visit to the demilitarized zone; cultivated a flourishing pen-pal relationship with Kim Jong Un; obtained a shaky pledge from Pyongyang to not conduct nuclear- and long-range-missile tests; and secured the release of some American prisoners.
What he hasn’t achieved is the denuclearization of North Korea.
With time running out in his first term, Trump might have to settle for keeping the North Korean nuclear arsenal from getting much worse—or maybe, if there’s a diplomatic breakthrough, scaling it back. The price might be sanctions relief for North Korea. The question is whether that will prove too high a price for the Trump administration.
The “political rationale” for Trump is, “You don’t have to solve the problem, but you have to show evidence that the problem is being managed,” Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “The question becomes, What does a deal look like that can get you started in a credible way but probably not get finished? Simply because there’s not enough time.”
The surprise rendezvous last month between Trump and Kim at the Korean demilitarized zone maintained the story line that their special relationship will finally accomplish what their predecessors couldn’t, Snyder reasoned, and striking some “interim deal” could keep “the North Koreans on the hook” for the next year or so. The president says he’s in “no hurry” to reach an agreement, but if he doesn’t want footage of missile tests flashing across Fox News as he’s campaigning in Florida, he’ll have to, at a minimum, keep the diplomatic effort on an even keel.
The North Korean government reminded everyone just how unstable the diplomacy is when it threatened earlier this week to resume nuclear- and intercontinental-ballistic-missile tests—a likely death knell for the talks—if the United States and South Korea proceed with planned military exercises in August. While the North Koreans claim that Trump promised Kim when they huddled at the border that he would suspend such drills, a senior Trump-administration official, speaking to me on the condition of anonymity, vigorously defended the “defense-oriented” exercise, suggesting that the United States is unlikely to comply with North Korea’s demands.
All this is happening as American and North Korean negotiators are due to meet later this month to pick up the pieces from the leaders’ collapsed second summit in Vietnam.
Whether these working-level talks will actually make progress depends in large part on whether the United States is willing to provide North Korea with some sanctions relief before it completely gives up its nuclear-weapons program. Ask a Trump-administration official about this in private or public these days, and he or she will typically offer a response that at first glance seems inflexible but that upon closer inspection leaves the United States with considerable flexibility.
“As the president has said, sanctions will stay on until the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, the senior administration official noted by email. The official didn’t respond to a follow-up question about whether that meant all U.S. and international sanctions would stay on until such a point, or whether the U.S. government might temporarily lift or issue waivers for certain sanctions.
Last week, David Stilwell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, insisted that Washington would not offer the North Koreans “relief until we see that they’re genuinely interested in living up to their commitments,” a condition nowhere near the equivalent of wholesale denuclearization. “In the abstract, we have no interest in sanctions relief before denuclearization,” Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, reportedly said in a recent off-the-record briefing. What of Biegun’s position in the real world?
And of course, to borrow a phrase from these officials, “the president has said” a lot of different things, few of which have included the jargony phrase final, fully verified denuclearization. After bidding farewell to Kim last month, he declared that “the sanctions remain, but at some point during the negotiations things can happen.”
One way the United States could partially ease sanctions is by granting exemptions for inter-Korean economic projects to reward North Korea for major concessions on its nuclear program—something the South Korean government has long pushed for and the Trump administration, in an effort to preserve its maximum-pressure campaign against North Korea, has long resisted. Moon Chung-in, a foreign-policy adviser to South Korea’s president, recently sketched out one possible scenario: The United States might allow for the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourism region in North Korea. In exchange, Pyongyang would shutter the Yongbyon nuclear complex and disclose its other, suspected nuclear facilities.
Another is by suspending and eventually removing tranches of sanctions in tandem with advances in North Korean denuclearization. The State Department has denied reports that the Trump administration is considering suspending sanctions on North Korea’s coal and textile exports for 12 to 18 months in return for the dismantlement of Yongbyon and a freeze of the country’s production of fissile material and nuclear warheads. But it has acknowledged that it is seeking a freeze of the nuclear program as “the beginning of the [denuclearization] process.”
The nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, whose team at Stanford University has developed a phased road map for halting, rolling back, and eventually eliminating North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, and who has shared these ideas with Biegun, says the envoy “listens extremely well” to the recommendations. But, he adds, “there’s probably as much of a challenge to go forward within the administration as there is to go forward with North Korea,” given that some of the president’s other top aides, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, want to withhold any U.S. concessions until North Korea commits to and carries out complete denuclearization.
Biegun has signaled “movement toward the phased or step-by-step” approach, and “Trump seems to be in that headspace as well,” says Toby Dalton, whose team at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has advised Biegun and other U.S. officials. But others at the National Security Council still want the U.S. negotiating position to be “so front-loaded with demands that it effectively means no negotiations.”
There doesn’t appear to be “a full interagency process [within the Trump administration] to evaluate the various negotiating positions” with North Korea, Dalton told me. “That suggests to me that the effort is really to try to get the last word in with the president and to use that as the way to influence the policy process.”
Asked about divisions within the administration, the NSC declined to comment. A State Department spokesperson told me by email that State and the NSC “are focused on achieving the president’s goal” of a fully denuclearized North Korea, and responded in a similar fashion when asked whether 2020 politics is factoring into the administration’s diplomacy with Kim.
If the sanctions hard-liners emerge victorious, North Korea is unlikely to destroy Yongbyon or consent to an internationally verified freeze of its program in response to the measures that U.S. officials have expressed more willingness to adopt during the next round of negotiations: extending humanitarian assistance; organizing people-to-people and professional exchanges; formally declaring an end to the Korean War; and establishing liaison offices in each other’s capitals.
The United States has been so open to the idea of an end-of-war declaration since the lead-up to the Vietnam summit that the North Koreans may feel they’ve already “pocketed” that commitment, Dalton said. While Kim may desire a normal relationship with the United States and view a U.S. liaison office in Pyongyang as a kind of security assurance (if American diplomats are on the ground, a U.S. military attack is less likely), North Korea already has a de facto liaison office in New York: its mission to the United Nations.
As Moon told me and other journalists in April, the North Koreans view sanctions relief not just as an economic incentive but also as a prerequisite for normalizing relations with the United States. “Maximum pressure is a hostile policy—that’s how [the North Koreans] view it,” says Hecker, who is supportive of the United States offering “tailored sanctions relief” in return for North Korean moves to scale back its nuclear program.
Some reports suggest that Kim has been emphasizing the need for security guarantees in his recent conversations with Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But as Joseph Yun, Biegun’s predecessor in the Trump administration, once told me, here, too, the United States can’t give North Korea what it covets. “We can give them national-security guarantees, but we cannot give them regime-security guarantees. And in the end, what they want is regime guarantees,” he said.
Concluding a peace treaty and nonaggression pact between Washington and Pyongyang, opening up the North Korean economy, and even drawing down the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula might make North Korea safer, but it wouldn’t necessarily make Kim’s totalitarian regime safer—in fact, perhaps just the opposite. At the moment, Kim probably still views his most reliable regime-security guarantee as his nuclear arsenal.
If the Trump administration isn’t willing to compromise on sanctions, “we may be able to make some progress toward stability, but stability may mean accepting North Korea as a state that has nuclear weapons and finding ways to avoid conflict,” Dalton argued. “If we want to actually affect stockpile numbers, if we want to affect North Korea’s nuclear posture in meaningful ways, then I think we’re going to have to be prepared to do more.”
“There seems to be some realism creeping into the U.S. negotiating considerations,” Dalton added. “Clearly North Korea’s not going to give up all nuclear weapons up front. They’re probably not going to even give up a few. Any agreement that could be made in this first instance would leave North Korea with its arsenal.” Realistically then, any interim deal would be aimed at imposing some constraints on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Dalton said he’s encountered two kinds of reactions when he’s briefed U.S. officials on the Carnegie team’s work on how to implement “caps” on North Korea’s program: “Early on, the reaction was, ‘We’re denuclearizing North Korea. We’re not just capping their arsenal.’ More recently, it’s been, ‘This is an interesting idea, but before we could even get there we need to get into a negotiation, and we’re just not there.’” More than a year into Trump’s summit diplomacy with Kim, the real negotiations haven’t even begun.