How To Approach the North Korea Problem in 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jon Un meet inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea, on June 30, 2019.

As Kim Jong Un’s self-imposed deadline to make progress in negotiations with the United States by the end of 2019 approached, there was widespread speculation that North Korea would resume long-range missile tests. But the new year came and went without a fireworks display, and in his remarks at the end of the year, Kim signaled a wait-and-see posture, stating that “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.”

Although North Korea’s repeated missile tests in 2019 indicated that Kim may be losing patience with diplomacy, as 2020 begins, the door for diplomacy appears to remain open, if only a crack. While the chances for meaningful progress are low, the United States should do everything it can to revive diplomacy while strengthening the alliances essential for an effective North Korea policy.

Resuscitating diplomacy

Despite all of the ups and downs with North Korea over the past couple of years, the politics in the countries most relevant to diplomacy remain conducive to a deal: U.S. President Donald Trump has consistently made clear his hope for a deal that he could spin as a political victory, evidenced by his reluctance to criticize North Korea’s missile tests in 2019; President Moon Jae-in of South Korea remains keen to advance inter-Korean relations, his signature policy initiative; despite concerns over Trump’s approach, Japan is willing to support American diplomacy in order to maintain a united front; China wants to deflect more U.S. sanctions pressure; and Kim Jong Un continues to display at least a fleeting willingness to consider diplomacy, if for no other reason than to relieve economic sanctions.

And while it is still hard to know if Kim’s interest in diplomacy has been sincere, the reality is that Trump has not engaged in serious diplomacy yet, mostly wasting the past two years with photo-op summits that have achieved nothing while undercutting negotiators. Kim now seems to assume that any progress will have to come directly from Trump—and based on Trump’s willingness to rush into summit meetings without negotiators having made progress in negotiations, it’s not hard to understand why.

During the Hanoi summit, Trump rebuffed Kim’s offer to freeze nuclear programs at the Yongbyon facility in exchange for sanctions relief, and ever since, Kim has appeared much more skittish about engaging in substantive negotiations. Other than an impromptu Trump-Kim summit over the summer and working-level talks in October, the lines of communication seem to have gone mostly quiet, and the North Koreans don’t appear to be picking up the phone when the United States or South Korea calls. North Korean statements have regularly hinted at the need for the United States to make a new offer if real talks are to resume.

If the United States has not done so already in private, the best bet for jump-starting negotiations is for the United States to make a substantive offer of sanctions relief to North Korea—responding to the offer that Kim made in Hanoi—that shows it is willing to have a real negotiation. This could help entice North Korea back to the table; at the very least, it would test North Korean statements about America needing to make the next move.

If talks were to restart, the United States must engage in a way that would incentivize Kim to improve the status quo. The Trump administration must empower U.S. State Department diplomats to continue the discussions on denuclearization, opening liaison offices, and negotiating an end of war declaration that occurred in the weeks leading up to Hanoi. But doing this successfully would require Trump to stay off Twitter, not rush into summits, and make clear to Kim that his negotiators have his proxy—a tall, if not impossible, order indeed.

Repairing alliances

While Trump appears to be refraining from criticizing North Korea to keep the hope of a deal alive, there are growing concerns in the United States that this stalemate just allows North Korea to continue advancing its nuclear and missile programs at little cost. This is why the United States must make clear that diplomacy is still on the table while also repairing and strengthening its alliances, which are essential to any successful approach toward North Korea.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration continues to undermine U.S. alliances in Asia, in particular with South Korea. From quadrupling demands for alliance cost-sharing to imposing protectionist tariffs to questioning the value of the alliances and the U.S. troop presence, Trump has placed serious strain on U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan. While Trump started 2020 by sending Kim a birthday message, his secretaries of state and defense wrote an op-ed demanding more money from South Korea. Instead of extorting allies, Washington must work to restore and strengthen these relationships to avoid allowing North Korea to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies.

If strained U.S.-South Korean relations weren’t problem enough, in 2019, Japan and South Korea also clashed bitterly over history, trade, and security. Discord between U.S. allies only creates leverage for North Korea, and so the United States must focus on avoiding a further rift between Tokyo and Seoul. Good old-fashioned diplomatic elbow grease will be necessary—including through regular, high-level trilateral meetings, such as the most recent one in January 2020—in order to send a clear signal to North Korea that the allies will not allow disagreements to interfere with a common approach to North Korea.

Standing firm against North Korean provocations

In addition to repairing alliances, the United States must respond to North Korean provocations. North Korean missile tests that violate U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions require real responses, including trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea statements and convenings of the UNSC. Responding to North Korean provocations in a clear way in no way hinders simultaneous attempts to restart diplomacy; rather, standing firm with allies will remind North Korea of the costs of not engaging in diplomacy.

However, the United States should be wary of implementing further sanctions against North Korea at the moment. Although sanctions can be an effective tool when crafted right and coordinated with allies—as demonstrated in Hanoi, Kim clearly values sanctions relief—the current sanctions regime is comprehensive and increasingly difficult to enforce. Instead of creating new sanctions regimes, the United States should move to strengthen existing sanctions enforcement if North Korea continues missile tests and provocations, including by considering additional secondary sanctions on Chinese companies aiding the regime by violating current sanctions.

Conclusion

Whatever else happens in the coming months, it should be abundantly clear that a return to the “fire and fury” and military threats of 2017 would be dangerous and increase the chances of miscommunication that could accidentally lead to conflict. With North Korea in possession of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States as well as short- and medium-range missiles and artillery that threaten U.S. allies, troops, and citizens in the region, the risks of increased tensions are real.

As 2020 begins, it is possible that Kim Jong Un is done with talking and will resume nuclear and ICBM testing. It is also possible that Kim is waiting out Trump, and wants to see what the 2020 U.S. election will bring. And it certainly seems possible—even likely—that Trump is just not capable of taking advantage of a diplomatic opportunity, if it exists. No matter what the reality, U.S. interests right now require Washington to get creative about jump-starting diplomacy while simultaneously repairing U.S. alliances—policies that will strengthen America’s position regardless of what North Korea does in 2020.

Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Haneul Lee is a research assistant for Asia Policy at the Center.