The denuclearization process with North Korea is going nowhere fast. Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. has no plans to suspend any more major military exercises with South Korea. Mattis also said that smaller-scale exercises in the South would continue, lending credence to the North’s accusation that a nuclear submarine recently dropped off a fresh contingent of U.S. special operations forces at the Jinhae naval base for training. Halting these kinds of exercises was Washington’s portion of the tacit “freeze for freeze” agreement the United States and North Korea appeared to have reached a few months ago.
Also last week, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly canceled a long-planned visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, just days after Pompeo finally named a special envoy to spearhead working-level negotiations with the North. Trump’s decision was reportedly motivated by a letter he received the same day from Kim Jong Un’s spy chief, Kim Yong Chol, who warned that negotiations may fall apart if the White House fails to take steps toward negotiating a peace treaty with the North.
There’s no reason to believe North Korea is holding up its end of the bargain either. Most available evidence suggests Pyongyang continues to develop its ballistic missiles and its enrichment capabilities.
North Korea never pledged to denuclearize on the timeline the White House said it would, of course, and since Singapore, it has stymied the diplomatic process over largely symbolic issues. The two sides are at an impasse over how to move forward. The White House wants full denuclearization. Full denuclearization is a non-starter for Pyongyang. Surrendering its nuclear program would only invite an attack. A partial handover is possible, but the U.S. won’t abide by an agreement that simply allows the North to rebuild what it just gave away. A peace treaty is possible, but the North would demand that the U.S. withdraw its 28,000 troops from the peninsula – a nonstarter without full denuclearization. And even if Washington signed a peace treaty, it would be sacrificing its one source of leverage over the North.
The issue is simple, if not easy. Unless the U.S. is willing to address North Korea’s nuclear program by force, the White House doesn’t have much leverage to induce capitulation. Washington can try to influence the size and shape of the North’s nuclear and missile arsenals, as well as its behavior as a nuclear power, and it could tolerate a nuclear North Korea for many of the same reasons it’s learned to live with a nuclear Pakistan: Islamabad doesn’t have the long-range missile technology needed to strike the U.S., and the alternative would be an exceedingly costly war. But it doesn’t exactly have much leverage for these lesser aims, either. International sanctions pressure has been gradually weakening, and South Korea has been busy pursuing its own reconciliation with the North in ways that are likely to further ease international pressure on Pyongyang. The U.S. has already played its military exercises card, and it won’t pull U.S. forces from the peninsula – at least not right now. It has promised economic investment to appeal to Kim’s designs on economic development, but Kim can’t do so without threatening his regime’s continued rule. And with Trump having declared in June that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat, there’s political pressure on the White House to show results. Time is on the North’s side.
The U.S. is now attempting to regain some of the leverage it lost. It’s why the U.S. is threatening to restart military exercises that Pyongyang believes are a rehearsal for invasion. It’s also why the U.S. has tried to reinvigorate the sanctions regime. Yet it’s hard to see military drills or sanctions doing much to break the impasse. They haven’t yet – not even when international pressure peaked in 2017. That means the U.S. likely has bigger issues in mind in crafting its North Korea strategy — namely, China and Russia, the two countries most responsible for keeping the Kim regime afloat.
Over the past month, for example, the U.S. (unsuccessfully) sought a U.N. Security Council resolution to halt shipments of refined petroleum products to the North. It also slapped new penalties on Russian banks accused of laundering money on behalf of North Korean front companies (one of them based in China) and on a pair of Russian shipping firms accused of conducting ship-to-ship oil transfers with sanctioned North Korean ships. Last week, Vox reported that the U.S. is considering new secondary sanctions targeting Chinese and Russian banks and firms. The recent sanctions were too small to hurt much, but the sanctions could be read as warning shots of worse things to come. Given the fragility of the Russian and Chinese economies, it’s doubtful that either government missed the message.
The White House and the U.S. State Department, meanwhile, have both singled out China and Russia in their statements on North Korea. It’s safe to assume that they shifted the blame for political reasons, but China and Russia have always been bigger strategic threats than North Korea. The U.S. may not be able to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis, but it can certainly weaponize it against its enemies. (In fact, it already has. Trump said Pompeo’s visit may not be rescheduled until after U.S.-China relations are repaired, suggesting the White House is eager to bind the two issues together.)
To be clear, neither Russia nor China are interested in a nuclear North Korea. It’s just that the threat it poses to them is subordinate to the threat the U.S. poses. North Korea, then, is just a bargaining chip. Moscow has sustained low-level economic support to Pyongyang as a way to bolster its image as global power-broker and seek concessions from the U.S. on, say, Ukraine and Syria. China supported the U.N. sanctions to forestall a war that might end with U.S. forces back on its border, but it continued to play ball because it thought doing so would keep the U.S. satisfied on trade.
In other words, every party to the Korean crisis – except for the two Koreas – is once again playing a bigger game. This is a familiar role for North Korea, which has long served as a pawn between outside powers. That’s why the North went nuclear in the first place. And in three weeks, Kim will celebrate the 70th anniversary of his country’s founding (reportedly with an envoy from Chinese President Xi Jinping) with Pyongyang in the rare position of being able to bend this game to its advantage.