Washington Has to Learn Pyongyang’s Rules

Negotiating with North Korea is a tricky game, and the United States is already behind.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean official Kim Yong Chol at the White House on June 1. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean official Kim Yong Chol at the White House on June 1. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Nuclear diplomacy with North Korea is not in peril yet. It’s exactly where Pyongyang wants it to be—and when Pyongyang sets the pace of negotiations, they’re bound to be tricky. Both the United States and North Korea will do and say things that will offend and frustrate the other without fully understanding the cultural and tactical roots of each other’s behavior. Negotiating with Pyongyang comes with unique twists and turns, delays, and psychological warfare that will inevitably frustrate U.S. negotiators. Driving this behavior is the North’s determination to never again be dragged around by a bigger power after centuries of being caught between neighboring giants. North Korea has come out ahead in the initial rounds—but the game has only just started.

The lack of real progress since the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 shouldn’t be a surprise. 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, and has been dragging its feet on returning the remains of U.S. troops killed during the Korean War. Fresh technological achievements have given the regime new confidence in its nuclear ambitions and leverage during negotiations.

The frustration, disappointment, and even shock felt by the U.S. negotiating team and in Washington circles are understandable. But they were foreseeable. The current bumps and diplomatic standstill are largely a result of the Singapore statement. The problem was not that it was a vague communiqué—it was clear even before the summit that a follow-on nuclear deal would be negotiated afterward. Instead, the issue is the order of agreed points, which has caused confusion and misinterpretation. For the first time in the history of negotiations, Washington essentially accepted, whether blindly or wittingly, Pyongyang’s wish list on sequencing: 1) normalization of bilateral relations, 2) establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and then 3) “complete denuclearization.”

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.

Pyongyang’s reaction to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July 6-7 visit also reveals that both sides have different interpretations of what the Singapore statement meant. This isn’t the first time this has happened in negotiations with North Korea; in 2012, Pyongyang agreed to a missile test moratorium in the leap day deal but launched a satellite anyway claiming that a rocket was not a missile. Washington apparently aimed straight for denuclearization because it believed it had already given the North more than enough concessions, including face time with a sitting U.S. president. The North, on the other hand, seems to have believed it was beginning those negotiations on an equal footing because it had already given more than enough concessions of its own: declaring a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, destroying the entrance to its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, returning U.S. hostages, and claiming it would dismantle a missile engine test facility. While it is not surprising that Pompeo returned to Washington empty-handed this time when it came to more nuclear moves, it is unfortunate the two sides were unable to fix a date for their next meeting.

The return of the remains of the U.S. soldiers, while very important, is both relatively easy for the North to do and a point that could further complicate negotiations. Once the remains reach the United States, negotiations may become trickier. Pyongyang will have completed half of its end of the Singapore bargain, and it will expect Washington to check off at least one of the first two items from Singapore: normalizing relations or signing a legally binding peace treaty.

In theory, the peace process and denuclearization process could proceed simultaneously. The practical reality, however, is potentially falling into Pyongyang’s trap. Making peace too soon could produce an economically vibrant North Korean state armed with nuclear weapons and normal relations with the United States. Serious progress on nuclear dismantlement should be achieved before formal discussions commence on a peace treaty. It will take skill and tact from Pompeo’s negotiating team to navigate the pitfalls and landmines along this twisting route.

But some forces in Seoul, along with Beijing and Moscow, want to speed up the peace process faster than the denuclearization process. In the late 1990s, the Four-Party Talks on a peace treaty tried another route to solving the nuclear issue, but they broke down, according to officials involved at the time, over Pyongyang’s demands that U.S. troops be withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula and Beijing’s desire to abolish the United Nations Command.

The only time simultaneous, parallel negotiations worked was in 2007 when the stakes were extremely high for the North: It desperately needed what was said to be Kim Jong Il’s personal cash of about $25 million unfrozen in the Macau-based bank Banco Delta Asia. This forced Pyongyang back to the Six-Party Talks after a one-year hiatus and spurred negotiations to lift financial sanctions in tandem with nuclear negotiations that resulted in the February 2007 agreement on shutting down its Yongbyon nuclear complex, discussing the North’s nuclear inventory (declaration), and establishing five working groups to implement the backbone September 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement.

Going forward, both sides need to first clarify definitions, words, and translations. A common definition of denuclearization needs to be agreed upon and repeatedly clarified. Linguistic translations also need to be clarified to prevent misinterpretations, misperceptions, and misguided policy formations. Pyongyang said Washington was “robberlike,” not “gangsterlike” as frequently mistranslated, for demanding “unilateral denuclearization” without regard to its demands. Pyongyang’s translation of its own Korean-language statement misled the world into perceiving it would halt production of intercontinental ballistic missiles when it was actually touting plans to dismantle its Sohae missile engine test facility. Pyongyang says it no longer needs to test and will now mass produce nuclear weapons. A common lexicon is also crucial because the North claims a “rocket” is not a “missile,” which was one fundamental reason the 2012 leap day deal crumbled. The list goes on.

The Trump administration needs a denuclearization road map that outlines the order in which nuclear dismantlement will take place and the corresponding concessions it is willing to provide in return for each step. Pyongyang’s reaction and actions to this formulation will unveil its true colors on denuclearization. Washington will now have to play Pyongyang’s sequencing game on some level in order to move the talks forward.

A critical moment of truth will come during the declaration and verification phase. Washington also needs to decide if its goal of “complete denuclearization” means complete nuclear zero or whether the North should be allowed to retain a civil nuclear energy and medicine program. The latter would first require the abolishment of nuclear weapons and a return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Setting an end state will help shape the paths toward denuclearization and whether and how to convert the regime’s nuclear establishment, including its personnel, from a military weapons program to a peaceful civilian program.

Trump needs a senior official in charge of sanctions who can constantly travel to key capitals around the world and has the gravitas to reach their top leadership, particularly in Beijing and Moscow, to ensure that countries are upholding their sanctions obligations until North Korea takes credible and genuine steps toward denuclearization. Sanctions are important bargaining chips for Washington to reward Pyongyang with for each step of denuclearization, but they won’t work if undercut by China and Russia.

The administration also needs a senior strategist who has Trump’s ear, knows the necessity of a regional design, and knows where components such as a peace regime and unification fit in a broader Northeast Asian architecture. This regional design must serve the interests of the United States, South Korea, and Japan, but so far, the Singapore statement appears to reflect one that is envisioned by and satisfies North Korea, China, and Russia. It would be a mistake to approach the nuclear problem solely from a functional lens when it contains far significant implications for regional order.

Negotiating a nuclear deal is a long, complex process, but implementing it will be harder. The concern is if and when Trump’s patience runs out because of the lack of rapid progress and lengthy standstills that are normal when dealing with North Korea. However, the Catch-22, according to Ralph Cossa, the president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is that Pyongyang will play harder to get if it is convinced that Trump will not walk away from talks.

The U.S. midterm elections in November may serve as a positive buffer from serious military considerations for now, but the diplomatic process afterward remains uncertain in light of Trump’s promise to his constituents that he will solve the North Korean nuclear problem. Deterrence and containment would be the logical and preferred U.S. policy route in the event of depleted patience, but a Trumpian world defies policymaking conventions and further highlights the apparent disconnect between the president and U.S. government bureaucracy.

Washington and Pyongyang, however, are not the only players. Racing against a clock of its own, Seoul will aim to drive Trump and Kim toward an early trilateral summit to declare an end to the Korean War as a first step toward peace, fueled by President Moon Jae-in’s determination to go down in history as the peacemaker. The U.N. General Assembly in September appears to be one attractive date, albeit an ambitious one, for Seoul for this trilateral declaration, especially amid increasing chatter that Kim may address the global body in New York. Kim might need this political declaration to justify at home why he is de-escalating with the country’s archenemy, but even a symbolic declaration has complex implications for U.S. policy in the region. For Pyongyang, speeding up the peace process not only provides steps toward some sense of security but is a savvy route toward ridding U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula and putting the utility of the U.S.-South Korea alliance under a microscope.

Previous agreements never saw the finish line, with the clock eventually running out in each U.S. administration. Despite all the risks and headaches involved in diplomacy, Trump should still remain committed to a negotiated settlement and fully implement a future nuclear deal on the basis of the Singapore statement if he truly wants to make history.

Duyeon Kim is a senior advisor for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group. She is a columnist at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.