Nuclear talks with North Korea have essentially stalled for nearly eight months and, with the 2020 election season fast approaching, time could be running out for one of President Trump’s most ambitious foreign policy goals.
A Trump reelection campaign email this week listed “initiated the denuclearization of North Korea” as one of the “HUGE WINS” the president has racked up during his first term. But Pyongyang continues to possess and develop nuclear weapons, and there has been little evident progress since Mr. Trump’s celebrated brief walk inside North Korea alongside leader Kim Jong-un this summer.
The Korea talks faded into the background in recent months as the media spotlight focused on other foreign policy issues such as Syria, Chinese trade talks, Iran and the raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
North Korean diplomacy may surge back into the headlines by the end of the year, but many private analysts fear the relationship with Pyongyang is likely to worsen before it improves — if it improves.
That’s because the North, which has launched 23 missiles since February, is expected to ramp up provocations around combined U.S.-South Korean military drills in December. It’s also because the North isn’t backing down from its April ultimatum that Mr. Trump start offering some serious concessions — including sanctions relief that Mr. Trump has repeatedly rejected — by the end of 2019 if he wants the nuclear talks to continue.
“There could be a series of escalating provocations ahead if North Korea comes through on that threat,” said Bruce Klingner, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former CIA deputy division chief in South Korea.
Srinivasan Sitaraman, an international relations analyst at Clark University, said the Kim regime will likely engage in “more missile tests and possible nuclear tests,” as well as “more aggressive military posturing and cyberhacking” if it doesn’t get its way.
“I expect the situation with North Korea will rapidly escalate after the new year,” Mr. Sitaraman said in comments emailed to reporters recently.
But even as the prospect of escalation mounts, other developments — most notably Mr. Trump’s nomination of Stephen Biegun, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, to become deputy secretary of state — have prompted speculation about a revival in talks.
The push for diplomacy has essentially gone nowhere since February’s high-stakes second summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim ended abruptly in Hanoi, Vietnam. Mr. Trump walked out of the summit refusing to offer sweeping sanctions relief to Pyongyang unless North Korea agreed upfront to dismantle its entire nuclear weapons program.
The period since has been one of fits and starts, underscored by a spray of threatening propaganda from the Kim regime. Messages in North Korean state media still praise Mr. Trump personally, but many have had a threatening tone. The most notable was in April, when North Korean officials began demanding that Washington soften its denuclearization demands by the end of the year.
The ultimatum has been buttressed since by a string of short-range missile tests from the Kim regime.
National security analysts say the launches violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, but the Trump administration has sought to downplay the tests. Mr. Trump claims Mr. Kim has held to a promise made at their first meeting — the Singapore summit in June 2018 — not to carry out any nuclear bomb or long-range ballistic missile tests.
The administration’s soft-pedaling has drawn criticism.
“We’ve miscalculated in the way we’ve responded to these missile and rocket tests,” said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces officer and senior North Korea analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“By not responding more harshly, we have created a new normal,” Mr. Maxwell told The Washington Times. “This is the kind of schizophrenia of the administration’s policy. We’re not giving sanctions relief to the North Koreans, but we’ve minimized the threat emanating from these missile and rocket tests … essentially greenlighting Kim Jong-un to continue carrying them out.”
Mr. Maxwell said the North Koreans are using the tests to refine their capability to strike locations inside South Korea, including the “fat target” of Camp Humphreys, home to the busiest U.S. Army airfield in Asia.
The administration’s attempt to push past the Kim regime’s ongoing provocations made global headlines in May, when Mr. Trump announced that he had received a “beautiful” letter from Mr. Kim. A month later, the president held an impromptu handshake meeting with Mr. Kim at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea.
The presence of the young North Korean leader at the DMZ was historic, with few disputing that the image presented that denuclearization diplomacy remained very much alive. But there haven’t been any substantive or “working level” nuclear talks since February.
The Kim regime agreed to participate in such talks with a team led by Mr. Biegun in Stockholm last month, but negotiations broke down after less than a day. North Korean officials accused Washington of “hostile” posturing.
American sources say the opposite: that Mr. Biegun’s team went into the talks seeking clarification from Pyongyang on the potential scope of denuclearization but the North Korean side was in “‘receive mode’ only,” waiting for concessions from Washington upfront.
North Korean state media followed the failed meeting with fresh warnings that Washington will be making a big mistake if it continues to ignore the year-end deadline for concessions.
South Korean officials, who have sought feverishly to keep the direct talks alive, say Mr. Kim is likely seeking another summit with Mr. Trump before the end of the year.
A report this week by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said the South’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) offered that assessment during a closed-door parliamentary briefing in Seoul. The NIS said Washington and Pyongyang are also expected to take another try at working-level talks later this month.
The extent to which Mr. Biegun’s promotion at the State Department will affect the talks is a subject of debate.
He will have more behind-the-scenes influence, but it remains to be seen whether that will result in a move back by the Trump administration of the all-or-nothing posture toward denuclearization that the North has consistently rejected.
Former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, widely seen to be the leading advocate of that approach, left his post in an acrimonious break with Mr. Trump in September.
Some believe the way is now paved for Mr. Biegun to drive a new approach — perhaps one akin to what he laid out during a speech at Stanford University during the weeks leading up to Hanoi.
At the time, Mr. Biegun said the U.S. side could be open to more of a phased approach to negotiations that could entail small corresponding measures by Washington in exchange for what he described as “qualified next steps” by North Korea.
Mr. Klingner said Mr. Biegun’s elevation won’t have much impact on North Korea’s negotiating strategy.
“I don’t think Biegun’s move up will have an impact because North Korea is also resistant at all levels to the idea of holding meaningful working-level talks,” he said. “The North Koreans are holding out hope for a third summit with President Trump, whom they see as more likely to offer concessions.”
The Kim regime can also be expected to use the 2020 election and the mounting impeachment pressure on Mr. Trump to gain leverage, he said.
Mr. Maxwell, meanwhile, said Mr. Trump would be wise to “send a letter to Kim Jong-un saying, ‘No more summits unless there are real working-level meetings first.’”
“Until we get Kim to do working-level talks, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Mr. Maxwell said.
“There’s just no evidence whatsoever that he has given up his regime’s strategy to control the Korean Peninsula and unify it under northern domination in order to ensure the regime’s survival,” he said.