North Korea’s Nov. 28 test-firing of a “superlarge multiple-rocket launcher” -- accompanied by recent ultimatums and criticism of Washington’s negotiating style -- indicates the Kim Jong-un regime’s frustration with the US over the lack of sanctions relief. It also shows that the Trump administration is pursuing a measured and deliberate approach that protects both US and allied interests amid North Korean provocations.
It is well known that Pyongyang is disappointed with US President Donald Trump’s views on the needed scope of denuclearization and its link to possible sanctions relief. Statements by North Korean officials have derided Washington’s “Cold War mentality” while threatening a return to 2017, when Pyongyang conducted a series of missile launches, among them an intercontinental ballistic missile that many analysts believe is capable of striking the US mainland.
This has led to former North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Yong-chol and veteran diplomat Kim Kye-gwan accusing the US of engaging in “crafty and vicious” negotiating tactics, holding “ideological prejudice” and threatening repercussions if Washington does not meet Kim Jong-un’s imposed year-end deadline for progress in talks.
These developments point to Kim Jong-un’s dashed expectations from his prior meetings with Trump, indicating surprise and disappointment from a failure to exact concessions from Washington as his father did masterfully with past US administrations.
Additionally, the recent behavior of the North points to how the lack of progress in talks amounts to a personal loss of face for Kim -- in particular, the sudden end to the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. Each of these experiences have left Kim empty-handed and without sanctions relief.
While Washington may view Kim’s unilaterally imposed year-end deadline for progress in talks as artificial, some North Korea watchers believe that Kim is insistent on this deadline, as it comes on the heels of his regime’s five-year strategy for state economic development from 2016 to 2020.
Unfortunately for Kim, economic development of this scale can only be realized if Washington ceases economic sanctions. Trump’s hard line of insisting on denuclearization concessions before sanctions relief has put Kim in a bind.
As some have noted, Kim might be betting that the current 2020 campaign season could be an opportune time to create a crisis for Trump. According to this theory, Kim’s calculus may be that launching an intercontinental ballistic missile or conducting a nuclear test -- both of which Trump has publicly said is a red line for him -- may force the Trump administration to engage in partial sanctions relief to defuse tensions during the campaign, making him look weak as he runs for reelection.
Such a gambit on the part of Kim may backfire politically if Trump uses the crisis as justification to ramp up military assets and pressure on North Korea, rally patriotic sentiment behind him and work to project an image of a proactive, strong commander in chief. Such a development may make it difficult for Trump’s Democratic challenger to criticize his actions without coming across as unpatriotic.
By most counts, chances of an agreement with Pyongyang on denuclearization are unlikely due in part to the demands coming out of Pyongyang. Kim has continued with his demands for the lifting of economic sanctions prior to his regime taking concrete and verifiable denuclearization measures. This has been accompanied by repeated demands for the withdrawal of the US military from South Korea, Japan, Guam and Hawaii.
It may be that the best Washington will achieve is a nuclear North Korea that is on speaking terms with the White House after an arrangement of partial sanctions relief for partial disarmament of the North. While such an outcome is far from optimal, it could serve as a starting point for improved relations in the long term, fostering a relationship in which Pyongyang and Washington can work together in select areas. Such an arrangement could possibly begin the process of lessening Beijing’s heavy influence and control over Pyongyang.
Any talks with a recalcitrant regime like North Korea will have ups and downs, and there are risks and costs to drawn-out diplomacy with the North. Over multiple administrations, Pyongyang has mastered the art of watering down demands from Washington as talks drag on over the course of weeks, months and even years.
Ultimately, if the North and the US are unable to come to agreeable terms in their negotiations, President Trump must be willing to settle for a sustained policy of sanctions, containment and deterrence with overwhelming military capabilities, all while leaving the door open for talks.
Trump appears cognizant of this reality. Signs indicate that his administration is on its guard for the strategic deception commonly engaged by the Kim regime during negotiations.
Trump’s saying no to Kim’s excessive demands and maintaining the “maximum pressure” campaign clearly frustrate Kim and leave him with limited options. This balanced approach of the president puts him in the driver’s seat of the talks -- for now -- allowing him to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula from a position of strength.
By Ted Gover
Ted Gover writes on US-Asian relations and foreign policy. He is the director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University. -- Ed.