After a heavily choreographed summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, 2018, talks between the two countries appear to have hit roadblocks one month later. Kim refused to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he visited North Korea in early July, and North Korea accused the American side of having a “gangster-like mindset.” On July 12, North Korean officials didn’t show up at a scheduled meeting at the DMZ to discuss returning the remains of U.S. troops. However, the meeting took place on Sunday, July 15 instead.
What does this mean for the future of United States-North Korea relations? Where will the talks go from here? The National Interest asked nine scholars and experts for their views on the following question:
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with North Korean officials on July 6-7 to further talks between the U.S. and North Korea on denuclearization—talks that seemed to have not gone well. In your judgment, what are the prospects for denuclearization and/or peace, and what should the parties do going forward?
Michael Auslin, Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution:
The Trump administration has committed itself to negotiations until North Korea crosses a line that proves undeniable bad faith, such as more nuclear testing (including a potential atmospheric test), repeated missile launches, unambiguous evidence of proliferation, or a military provocation directed at South Korea, Japan, or the United States. Short of such actions by Pyongyang, it is unlikely that the administration will declare their engagement a failure.
This means that the North Koreans effectively control the pace of relations and have successfully instituted a dynamic that keeps the Americans in a largely reactive mode. While the President and Secretary of State Pompeo repeatedly have cautioned that any denuclearization effort will take a long time, they continue to maintain that progress is being made, for the present, thus relieving the North Koreans of having to actually do anything more than they already have (i.e., release of U.S. hostages, de facto moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, destruction of a nuclear test site).
If the Administration believes there is a realistic chance of beginning a process of serious negotiations, then it will have to get Pyongyang to commit as soon as possible, thereby putting the North Koreans in the position of failing to live up to their promise. One leverage point may be the Singapore joint statement, as vague as it was, signed by Kim Jong-un, and the administration may have to directly call out Kim and lay future failure at his doorstep. Moreover, the administration needs to try to figure out what role China is playing in encouraging North Korea’s on again-off again antics. Through it all, the policy of so-called “maximum pressure” should remain, though the effectiveness of future hardened American rhetoric is probably limited.
Overall, however, the prospects for meaningful negotiations, let alone actual denuclearization, look slim, leaving Pyongyang on the cusp of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. While it is possible that the North will come to the table for a real deal (which would require major concessions on Washington’s part), it increasingly appears likely that the North will engage in diversionary tactics or make only limited agreements.
If Trump fails now with Kim, future U.S. presidents may well eschew any type of negotiations. Even if talks fail, Kim may feel that Singapore legitimized him as a world leader and may believe that there is no risk in returning to the status quo ante and alienating the Americans, perhaps permanently.