Last week, the much-hyped second summit between President Donald Trump and leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un came to an anticlimactic end as both sides walked away without an agreement.
The North Korean side had demanded the complete repeal of economic sanctions in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. The United States wanted the freeze of all plutonium and uranium enrichment, including those in undeclared facilities.
President Trump was right not to agree to lifting sanctions in exchange for the largely meaningless closing down of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
North Korea has repeatedly pledged to shut down the aging Yongbyon complex in the past, including during the 2005 Six Party Talks and 1994 Agreed Framework. Shutting down Yongbyon would be a mostly empty gesture as North Korea has been enriching uranium at other undeclared sites.
Nevertheless, the lack of results is not surprising.
In the first place, the North is unlikely to agree to unilateral disarmament by giving up its nuclear weapons, which it sees as critical to regime survival. North Korea’s acute sensitivity to the linkage between nuclear weapons and its survival was on display last year when it reacted poorly to National Security Adviser John Bolton comparing North Korea to Gaddafi’s Libya. Gaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program in 2003. Eight years after disarmament, U.S. backed rebels overthrew and murdered Gaddafi.
As Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes, the North Korean nuclear program is “a half-century effort that is deeply ingrained in the state-building and national narrative of this country.” According to declassified CIA documents, North Korea started planning for its nuclear program even before China’s first “Project 596” nuclear weapons test.
The United States also has a historical tendency to underestimate North Korean negotiators, regarding the mysterious North as crazy or irrational. But the North has over the past several decades repeatedly executed a predictable playbook of provocation, engagement, and delay, stretching out negotiations to buy time to continue developing its nuclear program.
Lee Sung-Yoon, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, argues this strategy started in the 70s when Kim Il-sung embarked on a charm offensive, receiving Western journalists and giving interviews to the Washington Post. Later, Kim Jong-il wined and dined Madeleine Albright. Despite promising signs, however, negotiations would peter out, as happened with the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework of 1994 or the Six Party Talks.
While no deal is better than a deal with needless concessions, extended negotiations work in North Korea’s favor. After the summit, news broke that North Korea had began the reconstruction of a missile launch site. As talks continue, North Korea can continue fissile material and warhead production, adding to its current estimated 30 to 60 warheads. According to CSIS, North Korea has approximately twenty undeclared missile operating sites.
On the bright side, however, both sides came away from the talks without bad blood, having had a “constructive and candid exchange of opinion,” leaving the path open for future talks. The North has honored its commitment to halt missile launches and warhead tests, and President Trump is hoping to lure the North with promises of “robust economic development.” Engagement is better than war, and no outcome is inevitable.
In September 2018, President Trump told the American people that he and Kim “fell in love” after the first Singapore summit. Time will tell if the Trump-Kim relationship turns out to be, as the title of the song by South Korean boy group Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) goes, “fake love.”