In Vietnam this week, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet for the second time. Not much has changed since they met last June in Singapore, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for either party.
North Korea is no closer to denuclearization. If anything, it has gone in the other direction, continuing enrichment and amassing around 60 weapons, per U.S. estimates. But with its freeze on long-range missile testing still holding, the North is also no closer to having the ability to reliably strike the U.S. mainland. The U.S. hasn’t even had to sacrifice its regional military installations to achieve this; the North is still suffocating under international sanctions, posing a stiff challenge to Kim’s plans to secure his rule from internal threats by undertaking a complicated pivot to economic development. And the U.S. still has the ability to bring a swift end to the Kim regime, should Washington ever deem it worth the cost. Yet, major joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, which Pyongyang sees as indistinguishable from preparations for an invasion, remain suspended. Seoul is still determined to prevent another war on the peninsula, and North Korea’s nuclear and conventional arsenals are holding the threats on its doorstep at bay – giving Pyongyang reason to feel as safe from foreign attack as it has at any time since perhaps the founding of the Kim dynasty.
In other words, the U.S.-North Korean diplomatic process remains at the quiet impasse that’s existed since the North’s last intercontinental ballistic missile test in late 2017. Any deal inked by Kim and Trump in Vietnam this week will merely formalize this current state and establish the framework for negotiating lesser issues going forward. But this means de facto U.S. recognition that North Korea – yes, that North Korea – is now a nuclear power. Can this frozen peace really hold?
Washington Moves the Goal Posts Forward
The U.S. can live with the status quo, and unless it suddenly becomes more willing to bear the enormous risks of attempting to eliminate the North Korean threat by military force, it will probably have no other choice. Indeed, ahead of the summit in Vietnam, the Trump administration is bending over backward to lower public expectations. Trump himself, who has repeatedly declared that the North would hand over all of its nukes by the end of his first term, said Wednesday that he was in “no rush” to see it happen. This is a stark change from the White House’s pronouncements that surrounded the Singapore summit.
North Korea, of course, never promised “complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament,” as touted by the White House for months after Singapore. In Pyongyang’s view, denuclearization means effectively the same thing as what the U.S. agreed to when it signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires Washington and other nuclear states to pursue disarmament – someday. (The U.S. says one goal of the upcoming summit is to pin down a “common definition” of denuclearization.) Nothing the North has done since then has substantively diminished its nuclear or missile capabilities. Nor will anything it can realistically agree at the summit to give up, including (as rumored) its Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex. Proclaiming otherwise was putting the White House in an untenable political position and bolstering Pyongyang’s negotiating stance.
The Trump administration has instead started to declare that its priority is “securing the U.S. mainland” – that is, permanently ending the North’s ICBM testing. North Korea has tested ICBMs that can fly far enough to strike the U.S., but it has yet to demonstrate that the targeting systems of these missiles can survive re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere – the last and most difficult step in ICBM development. It makes sense for the U.S. to refocus negotiations on this red line. It’s much easier to persuade the North to give up something it’s struggling to obtain than something it’s already stockpiling, like nuclear weapons. Achieving the latter would likely require war, and the U.S. made clear in 2017 that so long as its mainland remains out of the North’s reach, war just isn’t worth the cost.
In other words, the U.S. negotiating stance is starting to align with geopolitical reality. This tells us two things about the U.S. approach going forward. First, the White House is shifting to containment. It may never publicly abandon the pretense that the diplomatic process will eventually end with a disarmed North. But the U.S. position at the negotiating table will be increasingly focused on things like managing the shape and size of the North’s arsenal and its behavior as a nuclear power. For example, the U.S. is currently pushing for a full accounting of the North’s nuclear facilities and arsenal so that Washington can, among other things, detect attempts by Pyongyang to pass nuclear fuel, technology or even weapons to other U.S. adversaries.
Second, in service of containment, the U.S. is about to take a page from Pyongyang’s own negotiating playbook. North Korea is the master of stall tactics; it keeps adversaries at bay by engaging in endless and typically fruitless diplomatic processes, carving out breathing space for itself without conceding anything that would truly weaken its hand. The past year is illustrative, as Pyongyang has bogged down the talks over largely symbolic measures, disputes over concession sequencing and myriad minor points of contention, whether real or imagined. Freed from the political need to deliver on its promise of rapid denuclearization, the Trump administration can use a protracted diplomatic slog to its advantage, dangling any number of carrots to entice the North to stay on its best behavior indefinitely.
Will the North Buck?
North Korea, however, is less keen to abide the status quo forever. It’s desperate for sanctions relief. It ultimately wants U.S. military forces off the Korean Peninsula altogether. U.S.-South Korean military drills are likely to resume in some form, possibly as soon as next month. (The U.S. is reportedly hoping that refocusing the drills on defensive capabilities will satisfy Pyongyang.) And if it thinks that its existing nuclear and missile arsenal – which, to be clear, can inflict untold damage on U.S. military bases and allies across the Western Pacific – is sufficient to expose U.S. military threats as hollow, it’s not hard to imagine Pyongyang toying with a resumption of ICBM testing to gain leverage in pursuit of these goals.
But the North also has plenty of reasons to stay the diplomatic course. Symbolic but long-sought U.S. concessions, such as an end-of-war declaration and a peace treaty, are within reach. The U.S. appears willing to put limited sanctions relief and, eventually, a limited withdrawal of U.S. troops on the table. In Trump, Pyongyang sees a president who is far more willing than his predecessors (and presumably his successor) to bring all the troops home. The abrupt Syria withdrawal has only strengthened this view. In dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Pyongyang sees an administration whose determined rapprochement is at odds with more hawkish political parties that have historically been more dominant in the South. Reunification is a long-term imperative for both Koreas; the road forward here is complicated enough without the U.S. threatening fire and fury or blocking Moon’s attempts to forge new cross-border ties. A deal on ICBMs that protects the U.S. mainland while leaving the South, Japan and other nearby U.S. allies exposed may widen cracks in the U.S. alliance structure, furthering its rapprochement with Seoul and pleasing China. The longer Pyongyang acts like a responsible nuclear state, the more international isolation and sanctions pressure will weaken, and the more the North will be able to push forward with its all-important economic modernization campaigns.
Most important, the North can never really be sure that the U.S. is bluffing when U.S. B-1 bomber planes are making daily runs toward the Demilitarized Zone. Pyongyang has seen the U.S. as fundamentally unpredictable since U.S. troops began pouring into Pusan in 1950. And in 2017, the U.S. and North Korea came uncomfortably close to a war that would certainly have meant the end of the Kim regime. It won’t risk pushing the U.S. back to war footing without wringing every concession possible from the diplomatic process first. Even then, it’s hard to imagine scenarios where the rewards of an ICBM outweigh the risks.
The path forward will not be smooth. The North won’t hesitate to rattle sabers when it thinks it’s being strung along by the U.S. Expect, for example, shorter-range missile tests intended to cause political problems for the White House and remind U.S. allies of their vulnerability. The North’s response if and when the U.S.-South Korean drills resume will be telling. And the frozen peace won’t be inherently stable. We generally see the North as acting rationally, despite what can sometimes look like utterly bizarre behavior. But the fact remains that it’s a highly militarized, internally fractious state with unclear capacity to implement nuclear safeguards, uncertain command and control structures, and steep incentives to strike first if it concludes that an attack may be imminent – even if that conclusion is borne of its culture of paranoia. The risk of mistake or miscalculation will be high. And Pyongyang has considerable interest in pushing the envelope to explore just how much ability its nukes give it to reshape the regional security environment to its taste.
This isn’t the grand bargain the White House touted, but it’s the bargain geopolitical realities allowed. The U.S. and North Korea have identified the space within which they can coexist, and they’ll have little choice but to learn how to do so.