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Trusting the Enemy: Barriers to Diplomacy in US-North Korea Relationship

In his 2020 New Year’s Report before a plenary meeting of the 7th Workers’ Party of Korea, on January 1, Kim Jung-un signaled a return to a militaristic foreign policy. Though signaling such a strategic shift in the report, Kim highlighted a crucial aspect of the United States-North Korean relationship: the absence of a trusting relationship. Without working to establish a trusting relationship between the United States and North Korea, there is little room for an effective denuclearization deal to be reached.

The United States and North Korean flags made with flowers. Source: Nguyen QuocTrung

Writing in the European Journal of International Affairs, scholar Aaron Hoffman argued that trusting relationships develop “when actors grant others discretion over their interests with the expectation that those actors will honor their obligation to avoid using discretion in a manner harmful to the first.” Establishing a trusting relationship in an anarchic environment can assist in decreasing tensions as states vey to increase and protect their power in the system. The United States-North Korea relationship is far from the trusting one described by Hoffman. Over the past couple of decades, United States efforts to build trust with North Korea have failed due to domestic political shifts, demands for complete denuclearization, and lack of general interest in repairing the trust deficit in the relationship.

Trust between the United States and North Korea first shattered with the failed implementation of the Agreed Framework in 1994. Washington failed to maintain heavy fuel deliveries to Pyongyang and did not build any of the promised light water reactors. This was mainly due to domestic political shifts which made implementing the Agreed Framework difficult for the Clinton administration. North Korea also did not live up to its promises. Instead of working to denuclearize, North Korea maintained a strong clandestine nuclear program.

The deficit of trust between the United States and North Korea was further exacerbated during the Six Party Talks from 2004-2007. During the talks, the United States delegation raised competing ideas on the goals of the talks; some thought it was normalization with North Korea while others sought to use the talks to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. Such infighting made it unclear to other participants, including North Korea, what the United States sought to gain through the Six Party Talks.

North Korea, on the other hand, entered the Six Party Talks with apprehensions. Pyongyang feared the talks could be used as a conduit for pushing for North Korean denuclearization. Therefore, North Korea worked to ensure Pyongyang could use the Six Party Talks to advance its own foreign policy goals. However, as the talks dragged on, North Korea realized the poorly defined framework would do little to advance its foreign policy goals. A lack of trust in the framework of the talks on both sides precipitated their breakdown and failure.

Actions taken outside of the Six Party Talks framework also contributed to the breakdown of trust. In September 2005, the Bush administration levied sanctions on Banco Delta Asia as a primary money laundering concern for “facilitat[ing] the criminal activities of North Korean government agencies and front companies” by “tailor[ing] its service to the needs and demands of the DPRK.” North Korea viewed the sanctioning of Banco Delta Asia as one of the first moves to destabilize the regime and push for regime change. From that point forward, North Korea did not trust the United States to negotiate objectively.

In 2006, North Korea conducted its first ever nuclear test, becoming the only nation to test a nuclear device in the 21st century. Though the test was meant to showcase that financial pressure would not coerce North Korea into giving up its nuclear program, it further exacerbated the trust deficit between the United States and North Korea; the United States delegation viewed North Korea as insincere in its abiding to the Six Party framework. Though the talks continued past the nuclear test, they produced little and eventually completely broke down in 2008 as North Korea continued to pursue a militaristic foreign policy.

Since the Six Party Talks broke down, no one has sought to repair the trust deficit. The Obama administration simply refused to engage with North Korea under the policy of strategic patience. Since his election, President Trump, despite developing a relationship with Kim Jung-un, has focused on a grand bargain over working to repair a growing trust deficit. Kim Jung-un, since coming to power, continues to push a policy focused on nuclear development based on a lack of trust in American intentions on the Korean peninsula. Without breaking this cycle, there is little hope for future endeavors at diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.

This poses a critical question: what can the current administration do to build trust with a country it views as an enemy? In short, cease the push for a grand bargain. To build trust in the intentions of North Korea, the United States needs to establish a framework centered on incremental steps toward denuclearization. These steps must be bipartisan. This will ensure they do not fall victim to domestic political change within the United States. Such a framework can ensure both the United States and North Korea can work to build trust between the two nations and build toward eventual denuclearization.


Benjamin Zimmer

Benjamin is a Master of International Affairs student at The Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University where he focuses on East Asia and intelligence. He is the creator of The Korea Page: News and Analysis from the Korean Peninsula. His research interests include North Korean politics, the North Korea-United States relationship, and nuclear proliferation. His writings have appeared in The Peninsula Report, Foreign Policy Press, and The Sphere. He can be found on twitter at @bzimmer8.

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