Let’s rewind back to before Trump was inaugurated– January 2 2017 to be specific. President-elect Trump tweeted “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Of course, it did happen. North Korea successfully tested an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States on November 28 of the same year. The following summer, Trump and Chairman Kim meet in Singapore and they are meeting again later this week. North Korea has stopped testing missiles and it’s generally agreed upon that they have become more open to diplomacy. But why? How did we get here?
Supporters of the Trump administration will give credit to their maximum pressure campaign and on the surface it makes sense. If you try to coerce a country to do X, then they will likely eventually succumb with enough pressure. That’s a plausible case on the surface, but what if you dig into it? The US and its allies have been applying pressure for years. Yes, it was ratcheted up, but that hardly explains the sudden shift in North Korea’s nuclear testing program and foreign policy.
But the November 28 ICBM test does. The test proved North Korea had an operational defensive deterrent against the United States. They had it. Mission accomplished. They didn’t need to keep testing something they already had built. North Korea didn’t need to have the world’s most advanced arsenal and they have given zero inclination of being interested in that. Given that, it would only make sense that North Korea would pivot to other goals– in this case economic development and production of nuclear weapons. In fact, that is what Kim said himself. In his 2018 New Year’s Address he said “the nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proved to the full…”. In case that wasn’t clear enough, he also said:
Our country’s nuclear forces are capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States, and they constitute a powerful deterrent that prevents it from starting an adventurous war…
The whole of its mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.
We have realized the wish of the great leaders who devoted their lives to building the strongest national defence capability for reliably safeguarding our country’s sovereignty, and we have created a mighty sword for defending peace…
He went on to say,
…as desired by all our people who had to tighten their belts for long years… [this] great historic achievement that has opened up bright prospects for the building of a prosperous country and inspired our service personnel and people with confidence in sure victory…
…A revolutionary general offensive should be launched to achieve fresh victory on all fronts of building a powerful socialist country by taking the historic victory in the building of the DPRK’s nuclear forces as a springboard for fresh progress…
…A breakthrough should be made in reenergizing the overall economic front this year, the third year of implementing the five-year strategy for national economic development.
North Korea shifted its strategy in late November 2018. Instead of focusing on developing nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems they have pivoted to production and economic development under the safety of their nuclear umbrella. This isn’t speculation. They are as open as they can be about it. Maximum pressure didn’t force North Korea to take a more diplomatic approach. They choose to do that. Trump didn’t force them to meet in Singapore. They jumped at the opportunity to achieve their primary foreign policy goal since the 90’s– a meeting with the US President.
And therein lies the failure of the Trump administration’s failure with North Korea. The administration has surrendered American leverage in exchange for almost nothing. North Korea has gotten sanction relief. They have gotten a meeting with the US President. They have looked more sympathetic on the international stage and there is no reason to think they will stop racking up wins against the current administration any time soon.
On the flip side, the US has got almost nothing in return. Sure North Korea has closed a few sites, but all those site closures are quickly reversible– an action they have done in the past with Yongbyon– and they only involve testing. None of their closures will inhibit their nuclear weapon production capabilities. They haven’t declared the extent of their nuclear weapon arsenal or even agreed to a common definition of denuclearization. How can negotiations be considered successful when we don’t even have a common understanding of what we are negotiating over? Yes, Trump got North Korea to return the remains of US soldiers from the Korean War, but we’re dealing with a country that can drop a nuke anywhere in the United States. With all due respect to fallen American soldiers, this is a little bigger than them.
But so what there isn’t any progress on denuclearization? We’re no longer on the brink of war with the North Korean regime. Isn’t that a win? Well, no. The only reason the situation in 2017 was so intense was because of the maximum pressure campaign– particularly the words of the President. Furthermore, the underlying problem isn’t going anywhere and all available evidence suggests Trump thinks it is going away. What happens if Trump realizes he isn’t getting what he wants before he leaves office? It’s hard to imagine that doesn’t create a crisis.
In the tango between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the North Korea chairman has been leading the whole time. He has gotten the nuclear protection he wants and concessions from the US none of the previous three administrations would give him or his predecessors. Trump claims to be an elite negotiator, but he is getting his lunch eaten so far and there is little reason for long-term optimism. We’re trading short term stability for a long-term threat.