Security and Foreign Policy

Progress On The Korean Peninsula Appears Murky

New reports have surfaced indicating that North Korea's missile sites continue to be operational. Andy Laub finds that the latest developments in North Korea are indicative of a bigger problem.


On July 26th, North Korea sent back 55 remains of America’s fallen war heroes from the Korean War, a gesture everyone can applaud as these families deserve to be reunited with their loved ones. President Trump always eager to take credit hailed it as progress and publicly thanked North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. This is not the first time North Korea has sent remains of American soldiers back to the United States; a similar gesture was made during the Clinton Administration in a period of active diplomacy with them when the Agreed Framework talks were taking place. The remains took weeks to be tested to find matches and many of them turned out to be animal bones. At the same time, reports suggested that North Korea was dismantling its ballistic missile sites and hadn’t conducted any nuclear or ballistic missile tests, begging the question- is this progress real? Longtime experts are well aware of what to expect from North Korean behavior during diplomatic negotiations. Sure enough only a few days later U.S intelligence reports confirmed that North Korea is likely expanding their ballistic missile production at Kangson, which is also believed to have a secret uranium enrichment program. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a recent hearing before the U.S Senate Foreign Relations Committee acknowledged that North Korea is still producing fissile material, essential for its nuclear program.

Since the Singapore summit in June and Secretary Pompeo’s follow-up meeting in Pyongyang in early July, there have been very few tangible results or even any substantive signs of diplomatic activity between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. One of the reasons for this is the different interpretation and understanding the U.S and DPRK have of “denuclearization” coupled with their negotiating styles.  The Trump administration and in particular the President and Secretary Pompeo do not have the experience that their predecessors, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, had of high level negotiations with a rogue regime such as North Korea. The Trump administration is making the same mistake by expecting too much too soon from North Korea in-terms of unilateral complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. The North Korean playbook for nuclear diplomacy is well known in that it takes a long time as the North Koreans like to string things along to extract as many concessions from the United States as it can. The North Koreans will also never give everything away up front, only a phased approach similar to the Iran deal is the most realistic approach. There has also not been any verification or monitoring of North Korea’s continued activities, as of now nothing has changed. As Washington Post reporter Joh Rogin recently stated: “Secretary Pompeo bought the ticket now he needs to go for the whole ride. There needs be a clearly defined role at some point down the road for the United Nations and particularly the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) to help flesh out the more technical details of nuclear disarmament.

The United Nations being a more neutral setting could help add legitimacy to any talks, given the US and DPRK’s long history of mistrust. Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, with his vast experience, is in a unique position to play the role of a very effective arbiter.  In her most recent article for Foreign Policy “Washington Has to Learn Pyongyang’s Playbook” Duyeon Kim an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security writes “Pyongyang reportedly continues to conduct business as usual because of the absence of a real nuclear deal with Washington (although it’s still violating U.N. Security Council resolutions), is taking unilateral steps disguised as denuclearization without engaging in credible nuclear negotiations with Washington or allowing independent verification measures… Past negotiations agreed in both writing and practice on denuclearization first and then security guarantees with a peace regime. But the North has never seen denuclearization as happening in a vacuum but as part of a larger package in which the proper order of events, sometimes synchronously, was vital. Right now, it’s getting its way.” Duyeon, very importantly notes the parameters and expectations of both the United States and North Korea during nuclear diplomacy. North Korea has now given some concessions such as the remains; by falsely claiming to have destroyed missile test sites, it got its one on one meeting with a sitting U.S President. Now it is going to start demanding more from the United States such as sanctions relief and a peace treaty ending the Korean War. Signing such a treaty risks recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, seeing itself as on par with the United States as it did at the Singapore summit. These moves only embolden the regime further. Diplomacy is about the long game, something President Trump doesn’t quite understand. He tweeted on his way back from Singapore that “there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

But diplomacy also has to be smart and carry with it realistic expectations, which includes knowing the playbook you’re dealing with, especially when it comes to North Korea. There need to be realistic short and long-term goals to narrow our gaps of misunderstandings; instead of demanding unilateral denuclearization, diplomatic interventions should seek a more phased approach that focuses on limiting the size and scope of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal, one that is verified with United Nations and IAEA. Complete disarmament won’t come easy, especially if no steps are being taken towards negotiating a solution.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and Multilateral Affairs Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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