Editor's Note: The following is part of a new symposium here in Korea Watch that will analyze potential U.S. policy options towards North Korea should Donald Trump win reelection. Check back soon for more contributions in the coming days.
President Trump came into office determined to rein-in the North Korean nuclear weapon program. The President viewed the North’s nuclear weapons with their ballistic missile delivery means as a clear threat to the United States and its regional allies. The feverish pace of North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapon tests in 2017 demonstrated the North Korean capabilities, creating great regional anxiety.
Throughout 2017, President Trump was clear that he would apply “maximum pressure” on North Korea, not even ruling out military action. Many in Northeast Asia and beyond feared that President Trump’s actions could even lead to war. They recognized that North Korea had been very clear: for years the North had stated repeatedly that it would never give up its nuclear weapons.
It was a surprise then in March 2018 when Kim Jong-un offered to negotiate the dismantlement of his nuclear weapons program. President Trump accepted this offer and held two summit meetings with Kim Jong-un. The President has chosen to emphasize a peaceful, personal relationship with Kim rather than resolving the North’s mid- to long-term nuclear weapon threat.
Which is to say that there has been no North Korean denuclearization. Quite the opposite: the North continues building nuclear weapons and has increased its capacity to do so. Satellite images indicate Pyongyang has been consistently developing its ballistic missile delivery capabilities, as well as the Kim regime’s continued sanctions-skirting illicit activities to fund its weapons of mass destruction programs, and Pyongyang’s statements articulating its resolve to bolster its nuclear deterrent.
This is shocking in light of the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration by Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon, part of which says that North and South Korea will fully implement all of their previous agreements and declarations. The previous 1992 South/North Denuclearization Declaration is clear: “South and North Korea shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons. South and North Korea shall use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes. South and North Korea shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. …” Should there be any question, Kim said in his 2019 New Year’s Address: “Accordingly, we declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them…”
With regard to a second term, President Trump has said, “We’ll make deals with North Korea very quickly.” But South Korean President Moon has already beaten President Trump to the key North Korean denuclearization agreement. What President Trump could try to do is to get Kim Jong-un to implement the commitments. That could be difficult because it has become quite apparent that the North has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons program.
The United States and South Korea could make it clear that North Korea is already in serious violation of its commitments. They could then decide on the initial steps to bring North Korea into compliance with these commitments, the first of which could be to insist that North Korea implement a nuclear weapon and ballistic missile production freeze. North Korea will not do so without a significant U.S. offer of compensation, but the United States could make such an offer contingent on North Korea aligning its behavior with U.S. expectations. Given the desperate food circumstances in North Korea this year, one such offer might be to provide North Korea with 50,000 tons of humanitarian aid per month starting six months after its most recent major provocation. Such an offer could be designed to provide North Korea incentives not to initiate new provocations this fall, as many experts are expecting.
Some in Washington and Seoul may not be very happy with early steps that leave the North’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities largely intact, but such steps have the advantage of focusing on not allowing the North Korean capabilities to continue to grow at a significant pace. Without such a first step, South Korea and Japan may face a potentially heightened threat perception towards Pyongyang as well as doubts about the viability of the U.S. extended deterrence in the region. This, of course, could have ramifications not only on their immediate security interests, but on the strength and reliability of the U.S. alliance.
Bruce Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
Soo Kim is a policy analyst at RAND.
Soo Kim is a policy analyst at RAND.