North Korea and the United States: No Exit?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had promised a ‘Christmas gift’ of sorts for December 25th. Analysts and experts anticipated a resumption of long-range missile testing or a follow-up satellite launch. Any test would’ve broken Kim’s moratorium on Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) testing and likely killed chances of future talks between the United States and North Korea. But Kim didn’t need to launch anything, instead very recently declaring an end to a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear weapons testing. So, are future arms talks between the United States and North Korea dead? For the foreseeable future, yes. There’s little either country can do to accomplish its national security goals, but, if U.S. President Donald Trump has the patience, there’s still a slower path to at least resolve some of the biggest points of tension.
What do both sides want?
Before talking about what’s possible, it’s important to explore what both sides have publicly demanded or declared regarding their intentions. The United States has been publicly diffused about what it wants–some former Trump administration officials have argued for preventative war with North Korea, while members of the government have suggested incrementally rolling back Korea’s current nuclear weapons program; all the while the administration has waffled between focusing on North Korea’s human rights abuses and then blocking a United Nations forum regarding them. What all within the administration do agree on is that they want North Korea’s nuclear program to end and for the ‘hermit kingdom’ to eventually give up its nuclear weapons. The United States views North Korea’s nuclear program as a threat to its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, as well as to itself.
North Korea’s demands are more straightforward relating to two general concerns: economic relief and national security. Because of its provocations, nuclear program, and chemical and biological weapons program, the country is under a series of severe economic sanctions which it seeks to recover from. The Trump administration has floated offers of mixed economic assistance, but economic ties with the United States isn’t what North Korea has been looking for. Regarding national security, North Korea is explicit in its desire to be free of what it considers an existential threat from the U.S. It’s not entirely clear what this would entail, but it would like to see the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
What is denuclearization?
In negotiations, defining the full definition of a term is among the first and most difficult problems to tackle. Both the United States and North Korea agreed that they wanted to denuclearize, and Kim Jong Un even committed North Korea to denuclearizing the peninsula. Both sides, however, wound up talking past each other with different assumptions of what ‘denuclearization’ meant. This caused confusion as President Trump felt secure that Kim had agreed to eventually give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons and shut down its nuclear weapons program (the U.S. definition of ‘denuclearization.’) Recent comments by Trump show that he still believes this.
North Korea has never spelled out exactly what ‘denuclearization’ means for them, but we do know that they want the end of the U.S.-R.O.K. (Republic of Korea) alliance and the removal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. One of the critical mistakes the Trump administration made was never inquiring as to what this meant to the Koreans. So, when they both signed an agreement committing to ‘denuclearization’, they were both committing themselves entirely different ideas.
Talking about what’s possible between North Korea and the United States is easy, but what’s plausible and realistic is decidedly more difficult. A place to start is simply for both countries to openly acknowledge what is immutable: that North Korea has nuclear weapons which they are unlikely to ever give up, and that as a result of those nuclear weapons and the continued threat North Korean weapons pose to South Korea, the United States is equally unlikely to abandon its position in East Asia. Kim Jong Un hasn’t given any indication that he would be willing to give up his country’s nuclear weapons or program and the United States East Asian presence doesn’t just concern Korea.
Complicating the matter is the current or planned expansion of both countries’ missile forces. Since North Korea stopped testing long range missiles and nuclear weapons one and a half years ago, they’ve continued expanding their missile arsenal and launch capabilities. At the same time, the United States has begun testing intermediate range missiles with plans to deploy to East Asia to counter Chinese missile forces.
If these issues are not first publicly acknowledged, then whatever measures follow likely won’t be rooted in the reality of the situation and easily reversed or undermined, not so different from what has already happened. Instead, both sides will continue to be locked in a perpetual struggle of taunts and threats of war while wrangling over insignificant and short-lived concessions.