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.
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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.