To make progress toward achieving the goals set out in the June 2018 Singapore Joint Statement, the US and North Korea will need to implement previously established confidence building measures (CBMs). There continues to be a healthy debate in the US about North Korea’s intentions and credibility. Such skepticism is understandable given North Korea’s past negotiating behavior. At the same time, however, the US government should not lose sight of how its actions might impact North Korea’s assessment of US credibility. The US decision to suspend but not permanently cancel large-scale US-ROK military exercises was an important CBM. Unfortunately, both the proponents of resuming large-scale exercises and advocates for their permanent suspension risk undermining the value of this CBM. Unless the Trump administration decides to walk away from the negotiations, now is not the time for the US to abandon its current position on these exercises.
Diplomacy Über Alles
As the president of a non-partisan national security organization, the American College of National Security Leaders (ACNSL), I strongly support a diplomatic resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. In December 2017, when the winds of war appeared to be blowing, ACNSL sent President Trump a letter warning that while it is necessary to “maintain a robust military posture as a deterrent to North Korea…the urgent need for success demands we exhaust every possible diplomatic solution.” As the administration changed its approach, we endorsed the June 2018 Singapore Summit and promoted efforts to seek a negotiated settlement. Although the preparations for the summit left much to be desired, and the Singapore Declaration did not result in concrete agreements, ACNSL still believed a diplomatic approach was the best course and therefore advocated support for the Hanoi Summit. Although its collapse reflected diplomatic miscalculations and significant deficiencies with each side’s preparations, the United States must not abandon—and other countries should not undermine—continued diplomatic efforts. Setbacks will occur, but they are inevitably part of what will be a protracted and contentious negotiating process, as the past four Democratic and Republican administrations have discovered.
Don’t Freak out over North Korea’s Provocations
As the US continues to seek a successful diplomatic solution, it should anticipate that North Korea will engage in provocative behavior. In 2006, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, which resulted in condemnations and severe trade sanctions; the following year, however, Kim Jong Il promised to halt operations at the Yongbyon nuclear site. In 2010, North Korea unveiled a new uranium plant at Yongbyon, but in 2012 allowed the IAEA to enter the country for inspections after they ceased operations there. In response, the US rewarded this cooperative behavior with an enormous amount of food aid only to have North Korea launch a rocket and openly display ICBMs during a subsequent military parade.
Kim Jong Un’s recent actions indicate that he has mastered his father’s and grandfather’s approach. After conducting a series of missile tests in 2017, he displayed a willingness to meet with President Moon Jae-in and President Trump in 2018, suggesting the possibility of a more stable future in the region. However, following the Hanoi Summit in 2019, Kim seemed to reverse course yet again as he carried out short-range ballistic missile tests. US negotiators should recognize his intentionally provocative behavior and not allow it to derail pursuit of their long-term strategic goals.
Why CBMs Matter
Strong, empowered and professional diplomats committed to long-term negotiations are the key to enduring tactical setbacks and overcoming the complex challenges to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Confidence building measures can also play a critical role in sustaining these negotiations by helping to build trust between two countries that harbor deep mutual suspicions. By adhering to the CBMs each side has adopted, they signal that their long-term strategic interests have not been affected by temporary provocations or highly visible diplomatic setbacks.
The US suspension of large-scale military exercises with South Korea is a major CBM that provided the US with negotiating leverage. North Korea’s hostility toward the exercises gives it a strong incentive to continue negotiating in good faith, reinforcing the US commitment to maintain the suspension. Additionally, the CBM increases the credibility of US negotiators—if Washington is willing to suspend exercises it previously stated were vital, then Pyongyang should have more confidence in the administration’s assurances that America no longer has a hostile policy toward North Korea. As long as Kim believes that the US poses an existential threat it will not be possible to achieve a significant reduction in North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.
Maintain the Status Quo
North Korea would consider a resumption of large-scale exercises as a breach of US good faith, potentially undermining Pyongyang’s desire to continue negotiations. Achieving denuclearization through diplomacy will require building North Korean trust in US intentions. Maintaining the suspension of large-scale US-ROK military exercises is critical to building this trust, sustaining negotiations and protecting the national security of the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia. Should North Korea take measures that undermine negotiations or demonstrate lack of good faith, the US can lift the suspension and reintroduce these exercises. Kim’s behavior can be extraordinarily challenging, but if US negotiators continue to believe that he is committed to a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem they should not squander US negotiating leverage by choosing to either resume or permanently cancel large-scale exercises with South Korea.