One year ago this week, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un made history as the first American and North Korean active heads of state to engage one another directly. The summit in Singapore was a bold and unconventional gamble from Trump that top-down diplomacy was required to restart a diplomatic process with Pyongyang that was largely stagnant after the rapid collapse of the 2012 Leap Day Deal.
The jovial mood, of course, didn’t last. Persuading Kim to denuclearize has turned out to be a lot more difficult than Trump likely ever imagined. The process is now in a holding pattern, with North Korean media increasingly strident and Kim himself “losing patience” with what he describes as a bullying approach from Washington. The Singapore statement signed in June 2018 is collecting dust, with even joint excavations of Korean War remains is experiencing delays. This begs several questions. How did we get to this point? Why is US-DPRK diplomacy, once so promising on the surface, now susceptible to collapse? And what lessons can be extrapolated from this first year of high-stakes diplomatic maneuvering that will help Washington turn the ship around?
Lesson #1: Striking a Personal Relationship Isn’t Sufficient
Trump’s North Korea policy is almost entirely driven by personality. The president, for decades immersed in a world where showmanship, publicity and glad-handing were central elements of striking a deal, has jumped into nuclear diplomacy with both feet using precisely the same tactics he courted as a New York celebrity businessman and reality show star. Cautioned by his advisers to avoid a direct meeting with an old adversary, Trump instead chose to do the exact opposite—calculating that establishing a personal connection with Kim would move the ball forward and provide working-level negotiators on both sides with the opportunity to hash out the technicalities. One could sympathize with Trump’s top-level approach; in a state like North Korea, you need to talk to the man who makes all the decisions.
Trump, however, grossly overestimated his capacity to negotiate on an issue—nuclear weapons—that the Kim regime views in existential terms. While Trump and Kim seem to have taken an affection for one another, a friendly relationship at the individual level does not automatically filter to the lower rungs of the US and North Korean negotiating teams. Trump continues to believe that by getting on Kim’s good side, enough trust will be created between the two men to assure the North Korean leader that nuclear weapons are not necessary for his regime’s survival and prosperity.
Kim, however, has demonstrated repeatedly throughout the past year that he is not operating on the same wavelength. Amicable personal interactions between the senior leaders may help set the table for a negotiation, but they don’t produce a mutually-agreeable outcome on their own. The more important factor in determining whether a negotiation succeeds or fails is each party’s ability to put compromise above maximalism.
Lesson #2: Slow and Steady Goes the Race
American culture is one of instant gratification. Trump is a notoriously impatient man, which is likely one reason why he decided to take charge of the US-DPRK diplomatic process from the start. After more than 25 years across three separate administrations searching for a quick resolution to an intractable problem, Washington is in jeopardy of repeating its mistakes by harping on immediate denuclearization as its one and only priority. To the American side, a grand deal that includes everything in one large package—denuclearization and peace for Washington, economic and diplomatic normalization for Pyongyang—has proven too tempting to resist.
Yet this is not how the North Koreans operate. As the weaker party in these talks, surrounded by stronger neighbors and facing a historic and militarily superior adversary in the United States, an all-for-all nuclear disarmament deal is an extremely foolish proposition. Such a proposal from the Americans could very well be viewed by the North Koreans as insulting at best and duplicitous at worst. It is no surprise Kim Jong Un rejected Trump’s “all-or-nothing” deal in Hanoi—nor should it have been a surprise to US officials that the North Koreans did so.
Indeed, Pyongyang has stated repeatedly that the big deal Trump desires is off the table, no matter how many times Washington proposes it. If there is to be progress in the future, it will require the Trump administration to soften its diplomatic strategy significantly and embrace the kind of small, step-by-step series of smaller agreements (all of which will inevitably require some phased US sanctions relief far earlier than the White House would like) which create trust and provide both sides with assurances that the other is fulfilling their commitments on the road to a more comprehensive accord.
Lesson #3: Keep Your Enemies Close and Your Hawkish Advisers Closer
A bilateral negotiation over an issue as highly consequential as nuclear weapons is tediously difficult on the best of days. But it becomes infinitely harder if your own negotiating team is not singing from the same sheet of music. The Trump administration has often looked like a discombobulated chorus in complete disharmony. This has been spurred on by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has a tendency to push his own position regardless if it conflicts with the president’s. Bolton’s fixation for the Libya option, in which Pyongyang ships all of its nuclear materials to the United States for destruction up front, nearly killed the first Trump-Kim summit before it even began. It took President Moon’s mediation to resurrect it.
Trump can’t afford to let his advisers dictate North Korea policy, particularly if the advice they offer undermines the prospects of an already perilous negotiation. Every word that contradicts the president’s instincts gives Kim Jong Un even greater incentive to be skeptical of a dialogue he may regard as insincere—or worse, a trap to justify additional economic sanctions and a return of “fire and fury” in the future. Just as importantly, every divergence within the administration—whether between the president and his advisers or between the advisers themselves—subjects Pyongyang to even more reticence about investing time in working-level talks. Why, after all, waste time on the technicalities when Washington can’t get its own house in order?
Lesson #4: The Role of South Korea—and Moon Jae-in—Could be a Game-Changer, but Is Fast Eroding
If there has been one person who has consistently risked his own domestic standing and legacy, used nearly all his political capital and pushed as hard as possible to bring Washington and Pyongyang together, it is South Korea’s President Moon.
Moon, elected on a platform of trying to engineer a détente with North Korea, has pulled off some small miracles, leveraging Kim’s 2018 New Year’s Day address calling for dialogue with the South and the spirit of the 2018 Winter Olympics to create a diplomatic opening leading to the first inter-Korean summit in eleven years. Since then, the Blue House has often placed itself in the position of intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington. When the Singapore Summit seemed to have collapsed, thanks to a provocative statement by North Korea triggering a Trump cancellation via Twitter, it was Moon who stepped in and accepted an invitation by Pyongyang for a snap summit along the DMZ to rebuild trust and get diplomacy back on track.
While the Moon government has resuscitated US-DPRK diplomacy on several occasions, its ability to perform a similar task now or in the future is questionable. While President Moon will be tempted to take every possible opportunity to bring Washington and Pyongyang together, his personal power of persuasion has been negatively impacted by the unique position he embraced early on. The North views Moon as somebody who is either unable or unwilling to convince his partners in Washington for the most minimal of economic sanctions relief to buttress the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. From Kim’s perspective, Seoul has yet to deliver the goods of the inter-Korean harvest—a central ingredient of which is the development of cross-border economic projects such as the reconnection of railways and roads; the reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex; and the resumption of tours to Mt. Kumgang. Notwithstanding Moon’s noble campaign to accelerate South Korea’s relationship with North Korea, the Kim regime is growing impatient with the lack of results and is beginning to see the Moon government as part of the problem.
Unless the Trump administration is open to granting exemptions to the UN Security Council sanctions architecture, Seoul’s desire to be a mediator will remain overshadowed by its capacity to produce results. In short: as long as Moon is at the mercy of Washington, the inter-Korean track will likely remain dormant.
Lesson #5: See the Problem through One Another’s Shoes
Despite two leader-to-leader summits, personal letters and expressions of support for the diplomatic process, both sides have stubbornly clung to their bottom-line positions. Washington remains extremely resistant to granting the North Koreans any sanctions relief before Kim takes tangible and verifiable steps towards nuclear disarmament. Pyongyang, in turn, has predictably viewed these demands as a continuation of the US “hostile policy” disguised in a softer exterior. This problem is compounded by the lack of communication at the working-level and the North Koreans’ preference for dealing exclusively with President Trump at the expense of his negotiators.
If Washington and Pyongyang are committed to breaking the stalemate, both need to be far more empathetic in their perception of the other side. The current impasse will continue indefinitely unless both can come to grips with why neither has been able to move past the broad goals laid out last year in Singapore. For Kim, this means belatedly accepting the reality that the politics in Washington are inherently distrustful of North Korean maneuvering and that the widespread sanctions relief he craves is a non-starter without Kim going beyond his offer to decommission the Yongbyon nuclear research facility. For Trump and his advisers, it means acknowledging North Korea’s situation as a weak state in its own neighborhood with no real allies and perennial worries about regime insecurity. It will also require Washington to abandon the idea that North Korea should give up all its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles as well as the means to produce them before the tone, tenor and substance of the broader US-DPRK relationship is improved. No rational nation would accept an unprecedented military and diplomatic surrender to an adversarial country absent the kind of political progress that will take significant time and patience to develop. This is particularly the case with a country like North Korea, which has proved repeatedly that denuclearization will not occur as long as the administration remains uninterested in reconciling per the Singapore communiqué.
The first year of US-DPRK diplomacy has a been a rollercoaster of up’s and down’s, minor triumphs and frustrating tribulations. Trump and Kim’s personal dalliances notwithstanding, the process is currently stuck—and both parties deserve their share of the blame for the impasse. If Washington and Pyongyang genuinely wish to grease the wheel of diplomacy and boldly move towards the goal of a more constructive, predictable and promising relationship, it is critical for both to learn from their mistakes and assess how to overcome them. Otherwise, the spirit of Singapore may be long forgotten by this time next year.