The Future of Diplomacy with North Korea
In early June of 2018, President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-Un marking the first time the leaders of the United States and North Korea met face to face. The Singapore Summit was to be the launching point of a new direction for U.S.-North Korea relations. However, the two countries failed to come to an agreement at the 2019 Hanoi Summit, and have yet to reconvene since the summit’s abrupt end. Since the Hanoi Summit, relations between North and South Korea have deteriorated, and North Korea has once again pursued a strategy of reckless rhetoric and intimidation.
Furthermore, the Trump administration has resolved to wait until after the election to renew talks with North Korea. After the presidential election, either President Trump or newly elected President Biden will need to begin planning and pursuing a strategy toward North Korea that attempts to lessen tension and uphold U.S. national security in East Asia.
The United States’ goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is not attainable. Denuclearization has been the policy’s end goal since nuclear weapons were discovered in North Korea. Past attempts by the U.S. to pursue denuclearization – the six-party talks, strategic patience, or maximum pressure – have all failed. Failing to abandon a denuclearization strategy has led North Korea to develop a sophisticated nuclear program that is capable of deterring the U.S. and its allies from using force against the North Korean regime. Without reassessing the objective of denuclearization, tensions will continue to rise between the U.S. and its allies, specifically South Korea, who under President Moon seems determined to pursue normal relations with North Korea. Undermining the U.S.-South Korea alliance diminishes the U.S. ability in the future to contain China, a top objective of the Trump administration. Therefore, reassessing the demands of complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization should be the first step of Washington going forward.
With denuclearization as a non-starter, the United States should shift its policy goals toward containing and limiting the growth of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. This policy should work through the UN Security Council, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Through negotiation, the UN Security Council and North Korea can develop a quid-pro-quo, leveraging safety measures and international transparency for the removal of certain sanctions. International transparency and safety measures will allow North Korea to maintain its nuclear deterrent while decreasing the chance of a nuclear accident or mishap that could be catastrophic.
Furthermore, increased transparency will allow for a better understanding of North Korea’s true nuclear capabilities and stockpiles which in the future can prevent the selling of nuclear material or weapons to a foreign actor. Allowing the UN Security Council to remove certain sanctions will start to build trust between the United States and North Korea as it will signal a new policy direction between the two countries and restart the diplomatic process.
The United States’ current North Korea policy has failed to yield any dividends and has led North Korea to develop a sophisticated and successful nuclear deterrent. To address the current policy failure, the United States must be realistic about its policy goals and their attainability. Abandoning denuclearization is a step in the right direction, and will allow the United States to contain North Korea’s nuclear program, lessen the chance of a nuclear accident, and bring the U.S. closer with its South Korean ally.