When U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, he flipped the script on the normal diplomatic approach with an adversary like Pyongyang. The strategy was basically to celebrate the optics of the unprecedented high-level summit, get some sort of agreement, and figure out the details later.
The impulse to do this was understandable; previous strategies hadn’t worked. In the face of long stretches of withering sanctions pressure and threats of fire and fury, punctuated by fruitless periods of engagement and economic inducement, North Korea built nuclear weapons anyway, plus a healthy ballistic missile arsenal. And by helping to reduce tension and start a dialogue, the summit could make it easier for both sides to agree on a viable roadmap forward.
But diplomatic ingenuity and imagination will lead to little more than symbolism and stagecraft if out of step with underlying realities. Nimble diplomacy can pry open a window of opportunity, but it cannot hammer one out of a brick wall. Trump has been just as captive to this reality as his predecessors. Willingness to buck orthodoxy goes only so far.
The White House is evidently still searching for a way to backfill the Singapore agreement with substance. By all indications, the U.S. and North Korea are still miles apart on where to start.
Over the past few weeks, particularly since U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came home reportedly exasperated and empty-handed from his trip to Pyongyang, the White House has been seeking to reduce expectations for quick progress with North Korea. On Tuesday, Trump himself said there’s now no time limit for North Korea’s denuclearization. This is a marked departure from the days following the summit when Trump said the North Korean nuclear threat had been resolved, and when the U.S. was still touting a timeline that would see North Korea hand over its nukes before the end of Trump’s first term.
The fact remains that North Korea has yet to explicitly declare in public an intent to hand over its nukes. In the Trump administration’s view, denuclearization needs to be complete, verifiable and irreversible – CVID for short. In Pyongyang’s view, denuclearization means effectively the same thing as what the U.S. agreed to in 1968 when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires Washington and other nuclear states to pursue disarmament – some day.
It’s certainly possible that North Korea has been much more explicit behind the scenes about denuclearizing on U.S. terms. It has a long and distinguished track record of duplicity. Such tactics have helped put it in the position it finds itself in today: a nuclear power, for all intents and purposes, stringing along the world’s sole superpower. And given its interest in staving off a war, easing sanctions pressure and exploring opportunities for major concessions from the U.S. – in particular, a substantially reduced U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula – Pyongyang would have an interest in saying whatever Washington needed to hear to get a protracted diplomatic process going.
But the joint communique signed at the Singapore summit didn’t contain an explicit commitment to CVID, nor did it outline any concrete steps toward that goal. And since then, none of Pyongyang’s actions have hinted that it’s willing to budge on the core issue, despite even the U.S. suspension of joint military drills with South Korea. It has continued work on nuclear facilities and stalled on dismantling missile test sites. When Pompeo tried to push CVID as the basis for negotiations, according to widespread reports, the North essentially shut down and politely waited for him to leave. So long as the U.S. is unable or unwilling to bear the risks of attempting to deal with the issue by force, it just doesn’t have much leverage. And there’s an argument to be made that it has even less leverage now that there are strong political incentives to show some kind of tangible progress.
In effect, North Korea is returning the negotiations to the format of those conducted with past U.S. administrations: a protracted slog over minor concessions that do little to bring about a grand bargain. The difference now is that North Korea is bargaining as a nuclear power, and the sanctions front is already starting to unravel. The sorts of tangible concessions the U.S. would normally be pushing for publicly at this point – controls on the shape, size and safety of the North’s nuclear program – would likely require an unpalatable admission by the U.S. that CVID is not actually on the table. Otherwise, a tacit “freeze for freeze” deal – in which the U.S. refrains from conducting major joint military drills with the South, while the North refrains from testing any ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. – may still be all that is obtainable. Most parties with a stake in the issue (Japan excepted) can likely live with such a deal, even if it would be inherently fragile. That’s only a failure if measured against successes declared after Singapore that never were.