The United States, it seemed, had finally done the impossible – it had managed to bring the government of North Korea to the negotiating table to end its nuclear program. Pyongyang had been signaling since March, if not earlier, that it was ready to deal. The North had warmed up to the South, having attended the Olympics and having gone behind enemy lines for the first time to meet with the South Korean president. By all accounts, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heard what he wanted to hear during his trip to Pyongyang last week. National Security Adviser John Bolton was drawing up his plans. North Korea had yet to back out of the negotiations. Everything looked as it should.
If all this seemed too good to be true, well, that’s because it was. On May 15, Pyongyang abruptly pulled out of high-level talks on reunification with South Korea scheduled for this week, citing the continuation of major U.S.-South Korean military drills. The timing seemed curious – North Korea had proposed the talks just days earlier, the U.S.-South Korean exercises had been scheduled for months, and North Korea had intimated that the exercises wouldn’t derail the talks, anyway. Later that day, Pyongyang threatened to scrap the June 12 summit in Singapore between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. Among other grievances, the North cited Bolton’s repeated demands for immediate, rather than phased, denuclearization along the lines of the U.S. deal with Libya in 2003.
Pyongyang’s aversion to the Libya deal is unsurprising; the Gadhafi regime agreed to it, only to fall, partly at the hands of the United States, less than a decade later. Here too, it’s the timing that’s surprising, considering that Bolton had been pushing Libya as a model for months, but it can be explained in one of two ways. The first is domestic politics. It’s possible that hardliners in Pyongyang had grown uneasy with the pace at which Kim appeared to be rushing toward a deal, sparking an internal struggle over where to go from here. If he was serious about fully capitulating to U.S. demands, then we would expect major resistance. The problem with this explanation is there’s no hard evidence suggesting that Kim is facing any backlash at all, nor that the North has any intention to capitulate.
The second and more obvious explanation is that the North Koreans are who we thought they were. We’ve never been convinced that Kim was serious about handing over his nukes, and this week’s events only validate our doubts. What Pyongyang has done in the past few days is merely an attempt to manage expectations, clarify its position and strengthen its hand ahead of a landmark negotiation.
North Korea appears to be laying the groundwork for an alternative plan — just one that will look nothing like what Bolton and, with somewhat more wiggle room, Pompeo laid out last weekend. Indeed, there are reasons to seriously consider reports that Kim is mulling a “Vietnam-style” economic liberalization. And there have been signs that Pyongyang is preparing the North Korean public — long conditioned to accept a permanent police state as the price to pay for fighting the evil American imperialists — to accept an accommodation with their great foe. On May 17, for example, NK News reported that authorities have been removing anti-American propaganda in the capital city.
But the North intends to do so as a nuclear power, and its outreach to the U.S. is chiefly about obtaining recognition from Washington as such. In the Trump administration’s view, denuclearization needs to be complete, verifiable and irreversible — and, importantly, completed by the end of Trump’s first term. According to Bolton, every one of the North’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, along with its associated equipment, plus its ballistic missiles, must be dismantled and shipped to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee before North Korea gets anything tangible in exchange. The U.S. even wants North Korea’s nuclear scientists to leave the country. To North Korea, denuclearization is more of an aspirational long-term goal. Maybe, for example, it would someday work toward global disarmament, with some near-term caps on the size and shape of its arsenal in exchange for a departure of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula.
Nothing about the North’s recent behavior suggests that it is backing off this position. Since it first opened the door to a rapprochement during Kim’s New Year’s speech, the North has conceded very little of substance. True, it has frozen missile and nuclear tests, but it already has large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and while its long-range missile program is incomplete, it’s advanced enough to make the U.S. reconsider an attack – as is its conventional weapons along the demilitarized zone that threaten more than half of South Korea’s population. And though Pyongyang seems ready to dismantle one nuclear test site, there’s nothing to stop it from keeping its many others open (besides, the site in question was likely made unusable after a test in September 2017).
North Korea, moreover, doesn’t have much use for the sort of economic assistance the U.S. is apparently offering (mostly private investment) at this point. Releasing American prisoners, which Kim recently did, is a measure of good faith but is strategically meaningless. His historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April was, at best, just the start of a decadeslong process toward reunification. He got a sitting U.S. president to break precedent and meet with a North Korean leader face to face without giving up a thing.
The question is what happens when the White House comes to terms with the truth: that the North believes that it’s bargaining from a position of strength, and that it won’t give up its nukes willingly. The United States can either accept a deal that effectively lets North Korea have nuclear weapons, or it can try to halt its program by force.
The North’s statements this week were meant to nudge Trump toward the former option. One way to read the KCNA warnings is that they are an attempt to drive a wedge between Trump and hardliners like Bolton. (Already, the White House is distancing itself from Bolton’s Libya rhetoric.) Pyongyang believes Trump has a political interest in reaching a deal by June, regardless of what the regime actually concedes. People like Bolton, in the view of North Koreans, complicate things by overselling what the North is willing to give up, making the president less willing to compromise. Whether or not this view is accurate — and it’s hard to see why Bolton would push Libya as a model otherwise — it’s clear that the North had grown concerned that a rare opportunity was slipping away.
The North can probably tolerate a deal that permanently freezes its intercontinental ballistic missile tests – which would enable Trump to claim a victory insofar as it secures the U.S. mainland from an attack. (Indeed, this is a possibility Pompeo alluded to last weekend.) Such an agreement would probably come alongside a slow denuclearization process and measures nudging the U.S. toward the exits. This would help the North stave off war and potentially obtain some sanctions relief without substantially undermining its nuclear deterrent any time soon. Perhaps even more enticing for Pyongyang, an ICBM freeze would also raise doubts in South Korea and Japan about Washington’s commitment to their security, doubts that could undo their longstanding alliances.
If nothing else, the North needs a symbolic agreement, one that allows both sides to save face and prolong the negotiations. The threat of U.S. force is still too potent – and the North’s deterrent is too close to completion — to walk away from the table completely, as the North has done repeatedly in the past. And this means it needed to manage expectations in Washington and keep the door open for a deal that would end the standoff largely on Pyongyang’s terms.