Entangled by Iran, Trump Avoids North Korea

Though his approach to Pyongyang is failing, the U.S. president doesn’t want another major global crisis. Kim Jong Un may have different ideas.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on June 30, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on June 30, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

For more than a decade, the United States and its partners on the U.N. Security Council have had a standard response to an array of North Korean nuclear weapons provocations: sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions. But as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatens to introduce a “new strategic weapon” to the world this year, the 15-nation security body appears to have lost its appetite for imposing additional measures on Pyongyang to compel it to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

And so has U.S. President Donald Trump—especially now that he faces a possible war with another nuclear offender: Iran. For nearly a year, Trump has found Pyongyang unwilling to engage with his all-or-nothing approach—full denuclearization first, then sanctions relief—yet at the same time he has been reluctant to pile on the pressure. Indeed, Trump appears eager to avoid a fresh confrontation with Pyongyang that could result in an acceleration of its nuclear weapons program or armed conflict.

But Kim may have other ideas. The North Korean leader whom Trump sought to charm with summit diplomacy a year ago plainly doesn’t like being ignored. Trump’s surprise decision last week to assassinate a high-ranking Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, was also no doubt unnerving to the perpetually insecure North Koreans. At a recent party meeting, Kim took a new harsh tone, pledging the unveiling of a “new strategic weapon” and referring to its “long-term confrontation with the United States.”

Trump’s biggest problem may be that he is entering 2020 without a viable strategy toward either hostile power, said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The failed maximum pressure campaign against Iran has brought us to the brink of war with Tehran,” DiMaggio said. “A similar incoherent and inflexible approach has led the North Koreans to double down on advancing their nuclear and missile programs. “The failed maximum pressure campaign against Iran has brought us to the brink of war with Tehran,” DiMaggio said. “A similar incoherent and inflexible approach has led the North Koreans to double down on advancing their nuclear and missile programs.”… In the current context, it’s not hard to imagine a quick ratcheting up of hostilities with Pyongyang, including once again spiraling toward a military confrontation like we experienced in 2017.”

It is a view held by many critics, including former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, who says Trump’s former charm offensive with Kim only served to weaken his administration’s hard-line “maximum pressure” campaign, which is designed to apply increasing political and economic pressure on the regime until it agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. “The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true,” Bolton told Axios in December.

And now Trump must deal with pressure from China and Russia to go easier on Pyongyang. Last month, Moscow circulated a U.N. Security Council resolution, backed by China and Russia, calling to lift some existing trade sanctions, not impose new ones, to help spur stalled talks between the United States and North Korea. Key regional allies, including South Korea, are reluctant to see the United States and North Korea return to a war footing, as they did in 2017, when Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on Pyongyang in response to a series of long-range ballistic missile tests.

For the moment, the White House seems to be searching for a new diplomatic path forward in North Korea, even as Pyongyang has escalated tensions with the United States, resuming a series of ballistic missile tests in recent months.

“The natural instinct would be to try to ramp up sanctions [in response to such North Korean provocations],” said Victor Cha, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former advisor on North Korea to President George W. Bush. “But I think it’s harder because China, Russia, and South Korea have clearly signaled that they want to go in a different direction. They don’t want to backslide in 2020 to 2017 and all that fire and fury stuff.”

Hanging over the debate is the question of whether Trump—eager to strike an election-year deal with Kim—would be willing to shrug off a serious provocation by North Korea.

“I think Trump understands sanctions provide him with leverage over North Korea,” Cha told Foreign Policy, voicing concern that Trump might be willing to accept a bad deal with Kim in order to produce a diplomatic success. “The real question is how badly does he want a deal in an election year. Does he want a deal so badly that he is willing to sacrifice [a new round of] sanctions?”

Few experts on North Korea ever believed it was possible to convince Kim to abandon his entire nuclear program—an aspiration that appears even more distant after Trump abandoned the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and targeted a top Iranian military leader for assassination. But many felt U.S. engagement could help put the relationship on a more stable footing and gradually constrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that the administration remains hopeful that it can still pursue negotiations, citing North Korea’s decision not to make good on Kim’s pledge to deliver a “Christmas gift”—which some viewed as a threat to test a nuclear explosive or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by the end of 2019. “We still remain engaged and hopeful that we can have a conversation about how to get the denuclearization that Chairman Kim promised to President Trump back in 2018,” Pompeo said.

Over the past year, the White House has been reluctant to ratchet up pressure on North Korea in the U.N. Security Council, playing down the importance of a spate of short-range ballistic missile tests, including a submarine-based ballistic missile launch, delaying plans for joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, and blocking an effort by European powers to convene a meeting last month to highlight the North Korean regime’s abominable human rights record. When Britain, France, and Germany decided in August 2019 to issue a joint statement condemning North Korea’s missile launches, the United States stood on the sidelines.

The latest crisis comes against a background of unprecedented high-level diplomatic talks between U.S. and North Korean leaders, who signed a vaguely worded joint statement at a June 2018 summit in Singapore committing North Korea to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But those talks faltered since the two leaders failed at a February 2019 summit in Hanoi to strike a follow-up deal. Kim—who was disappointed by Trump’s refusal to offer sanctions relief without verifiable evidence that North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons program—has since ended a moratorium on ballistic missile tests. Attempts by Trump’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, who was recently appointed deputy secretary of state, to conduct follow-up talks have been met with silence from his North Korean counterparts.

“I don’t see anything going on [on the diplomatic front],” said Bruce Klinger, a former CIA analyst and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Biegun has been eager to open discussions with the North Koreans, but, according to Klinger, “his phone doesn’t ring.”

That is perhaps little surprise since Biegun has backed away from the step-by-step approach he suggested in a speech last January and sided with administration hard-liners in rejecting a phased negotiation that might have provided partial sanctions relief in exchange for less than full denuclearization, at least at first.

North Korea experts say there is little or no chance Kim will engage diplomatically if those are the stakes—as he hasn’t so far.

The relationship took another turn for the worse late last year, when Kim pledged to deliver a “Christmas gift”—which was viewed by U.S. national security officials as a threat to end a two-year moratorium on ballistic missile tests. In a subsequent New Year’s address, Kim said he was no longer bound by his pledge to observe a moratorium on missile tests, accusing the United States of failing to grant relief from sanctions—though he left the door slightly ajar for the possibility of future talks.

Trump has largely downplayed the significance of North Korea’s latest barrage of missile tests and claims to still have trust in the North Korean leader’s pledge to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. “I know he’s sending out certain messages about Christmas presents, and I hope his Christmas present is a beautiful vase,” Trump told reporters recently at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Negotiations sputtered and stalled in 2019, with Biegun being iced out of talks with his counterparts from Pyongyang and North Korea conducting a spate of weapons tests to signal its anger and impatience with Washington. Despite this, some U.S. officials say they remain hopeful that talks will bear fruit, pointing to Kim not acting on his vague threat to deliver a “Christmas gift.” 

“[2019] was a good year. … We saw the threats that were supposed to come to pass in December did not,” a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters on Tuesday. “In general, the absence of severely provocative activity says we’re accomplishing our goals.”

Klinger and other experts on North Korea completely disagree. “There is a Trump administration policy and a President Trump policy, which are not always in unison,” Klinger said. “Trump has undermined his own administration policy on maximum pressure.”

Ever since 2006, when North Korea carried out the first of six nuclear tests, Democratic and Republican presidents have routinely turned to the Security Council, securing support for 11 sanctions resolutions that have gradually chipped away at North Korea’s economy.

But those measures have been fraying in the face of increasingly lax enforcement by Pyongyang’s primary trading partner, China, and North Korean officials’ skill at evading sanctions with “seeming impunity” through a web of front companies, cyber-blackmail, and a shadow fleet of shipping vessels carrying out illicit trade, according to a U.N. Security Council panel of experts charged with monitoring sanctions breaches.

On Dec. 16, Moscow circulated a draft Security Council resolution, backed by Russia and China, that called for lifting a broad range of measures related to “the livelihood of the civilian population” in North Korea. It also called for ending prohibition on joint South Korean-North Korean programs designed to rebuild the country’s dilapidated rail and road systems and for facilitating the import of humanitarian aid, which currently requires the approval of a Security Council committee before it can enter the country.

The United States and its European allies oppose easing sanctions until North Korea takes a series of verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. But the United States has been rather evasive about how it might respond to a new provocation from Pyongyang.

Trump’s U.N. envoy, Kelly Craft, warned last month that North Korea’s ballistic missile tests risked “closing to door” on negotiations and that the council would have to “act accordingly” if Pyongyang engaged in “further hostility and threats.”

So far, the United States has not entered into discussions with the council’s other members about potential sanctions. That could change if North Korea were to cross some unstated red line, such as testing a more advanced ICBM or detonating a nuclear explosion.

Any discussion of a new road map or Security Council resolution must bear in mind the reality that over the past year and a half, [North Korea] has continued to advance its prohibited programs, test its prohibited programs, and repeatedly refuse to engage in sustained diplomatic engagement,” Craft told the Security Council.

Craft, however, made it clear that Washington would prefer a resumption of talks and said the United States would also be “flexible” in seeking a diplomatic way forward with North Korea.

But some observers say it may be too late.

Trump and his team “lack the discipline and skills to engage in the kind of diplomacy it takes to get results and make real deals,” Carnegie’s DiMaggio said. Kim, she added, “knows that the solidarity on sanctions relief expressed by China and Russia will lead to weakened sanctions enforcement, which essentially means the end of maximum pressure.”

The United States and North Korea may have “squandered a groundswell of political goodwill” that accompanied the first high-level talks in 2018 because of “unrealistic expectations” about what could be achieved, said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and the managing editor of 38 North.

“Now that things are falling apart, it’s hard to see where the pieces fit together anymore, especially if North Korea goes down a more militaristic path,” she said. “We are in a downward spiral now.”

Foreign Policy staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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