Joshua Stanton, OneFreeKorea founder and editor and fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies:
After a promising start, Donald Trump now risks throwing away our last chance to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis peacefully. No, sanctions had not yet brought North Korea to an economic crisis, but they did present Kim Jong-un with that inevitability through a methodical cutoff of his banking, diplomatic, and trade relationships. Even more threatening were signs that Kim was losing the support of the ruling oligarchy. Defections of diplomats, soldiers, and elite workers surged in 2016, after a multi-year campaign to seal North Korea's borders had reduced defections by more than half. Donald Trump's speech in Seoul--arguably the best of his presidency--and his recognition of a North Korean defector in his 2018 State of the Union speech, threatened to strike at both of Kim Jong-un's principal vulnerabilities--his dependency on external finance, and the latent unpopularity of his repressive regime.
Trump’s Singapore summit made great theater, but terrible policy. To get his photo op with a man responsible for large-scale crimes against humanity, Trump cancelled a round of sanctions designations designed to attack the funding sources for Kim’s WMD proliferation. He has announced no new sanctions since. Each day sanctions are not enforced, more of the financial ecosystem’s low characters decide that laundering Pyongyang’s money is worth the risk. The pressure sanctions exert is perishable, and even under the best circumstances, they need time to work. Even before Singapore, it was in doubt that they could work before Kim Jong-un proved his ability to destroy an American city. Trump may have thrown away our last chance to stop him, even as Kim speeds up its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Some now counsel us to coexist with a nuclear North Korea. Yet already, Pyongyang asserts its nuclear hegemony over a submissive government in Seoul. As Pyongyang calls for a U.S. withdrawal, Seoul erodes it by trimming away at missile defenses and welcoming Trump’s suspension of joint exercises. But fundamentally, the U.S. cannot coexist with any regime that proliferates nuclear and chemical weapons technology, sends assassination and kidnapping squads abroad, uses nerve agents to commit murder in crowded airport terminals, or wages cyberwarfare against our own freedom of expression. Today’s capitulation to Pyongyang puts us on a path to tomorrow’s war. So let Trump pretend his negotiation remains viable if he must. What is imperative is that he keep the financial pressure on.