As US President Donald Trump eyes a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a breakthrough in stalled denuclearization talks early next year, Washington faces its own dilemma stemming from a lack of bargaining chips.
Time may also not be on Trump’s side, with reported cases of sanctions being eased, intelligence reports pointing to North Korea’s continued work on nuclear and missile programs, and a fast-approaching 2020 presidential election.
North Korea has called on the US to take “corresponding measures” — which appear to include sanctions relief — as a sign of mutual trust before taking further denuclearization steps.
Washington, however, has been reluctant to give away its most powerful bargaining chip — sanctions — and has demanded Pyongyang take more irreversible measures to dismantle its nuclear weapons, which has left the countries in a diplomatic standoff.
“The US has not many bargaining chips other than sanctions, after it lost some of its leverage by halting the joint military exercises between South Korea and the US,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean national security adviser and nuclear envoy in the six-party talks in the 2000s.
The United Nations Security Council passed a series of sanctions resolutions, which greatly restricts the North’s international trade, to punish North Korea for its tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
“Without sanctions, the US only has a military option left. That is Washington’s dilemma.”
Trump suspended South Korea-US joint military exercises, which he has called “expensive,” after the Singapore summit with Kim. The North views the drills as rehearsals for invasion, though the allies have said they are defensive in nature.
Chun said North Korea will likely demand a reward for every step it takes — from dismantling its major Yongbyon nuclear compound to a verification for that — a typical negotiating tactic of North Korea called the “salami tactic.”
“North Korea’s plan is that it is using all the cards it doesn’t need and offering to trade them with the only cards held by the US,” he said.
Once multilayered sanctions begin to be eased, however, the international sanctions regime in itself would likely lose momentum, and the US would end up with less leverage to motivate the North to further denuclearize.
“Even though sanctions remain in place, implementation has loosened considerably, and China and Russia are open to allowing North Korea (to) reap some benefits even under the current regime,” said Ankit Panda, a North Korea analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.
Time running out for Trump
The year 2020 is crucial for both Kim, who hopes to make progress in time for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party, and Trump, who needs to claim a victory in nuclear diplomacy ahead of the presidential election.
Trump has said he is in “no rush” to finalize a deal with North Korea and remove sanctions against it, but time appears to be on North Korea’s side, according to Harry J. Kazianis, director of Defense Studies, Center for the National Interest.
“Kim Jong-un, by most accounts, is in his mid-30s and wants to live a very long life. We must remember his time horizons are decades not just three to six years like the Moon and Trump administrations,” he said.
“If Kim does not test any missiles or nuclear weapons, he has the advantage of being able to wait out any current US or South Korean leaders that offer terms he feels he can’t live with, or, he can always ally with Russia or China until terms with America and South Korea warm to his liking.”
The Democrat-controlled House is expected to slow the pace of Trump’s nuclear diplomacy to some extent by keeping his administration’s engagement with the North under tighter scrutiny.
For Trump, however, a win or a diplomatic breakthrough would be personally important to him before running for re-election in 2020, given his domestic problems, Kazianis said.
“Kim has likely concluded that Trump is the least hawkish person in his own administration — and has the most to win or lose — so they want to likely deal with him for the most part,” he said.
For a better deal, Kim appears to prefer to talk to Trump face-to-face.
North Korea has not responded to the US’ offer of working-level talks to discuss the substance of denuclearization since their Singapore summit in June when Kim committed to work toward complete denuclearization.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, echoed the view.
“The regime prefers dealing with President Trump, who it sees as more likely to offer concessions as he did in Singapore,” he said.