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A Missed Opportunity with North Korea

Uri Friedman describes the closing window of opportunity for successful negotiations with North Korea:

As Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, warned last week, the window for this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reach a nuclear agreement may not remain open for long.

So why, as Biegun himself emphasized during congressional testimony, is North Korea barely engaging in nuclear talks with the United States at the moment, even as the 2020 election approaches with no guarantee Trump will win again? Why is Kim standing by as the Trump Window potentially closes—and actually hastening the closure by giving the U.S. a year-end deadline to adopt a more flexible negotiating position or put at risk nearly two years of diplomacy between the countries?

Biegun emphasized Trump’s unconventional approach to North Korea during his confirmation testimony for his new position as Deputy Secretary of State, and in his remarks he claimed that the president was not constrained by the limitations that bound his predecessors. The funny thing about this is that Trump’s actual North Korea policy remains maddeningly conventional in both its ends and means. The fixation on disarming North Korea has been a horrible mistake from the start, and the failure of two summits has not alerted anyone in the administration to the folly of demanding something North Korea will never give. The Trump administration clings to an unfounded belief in the efficacy of sanctions to deliver the desired results, so of course North Korea has lost patience with a process that promises to get them nothing.

Despite having a reputation for indulging Kim with his embarrassing love letter rhetoric, Trump shows no flexibility on providing sanctions relief because he wrongly assumes that pressure tactics can force adversaries to capitulate. He feigns accommodation at the same time that he makes unreasonable, maximalist demands. As Van Jackson has explained severaltimes in the past, North Korea responds to pressure with pressure. “Maximum pressure” has never been the way to get North Korea to compromise. Because Trump insists on looking “tough,” he refuses to offer any real concessions that might prompt North Korean cooperation. The only tools he wants to use are threats and punishments, and that is why he cannot seize a genuine diplomatic opportunity when it stares him in the face.

Jackson writes in the conclusion to his book, On the Brink:

Much hinges on whether the United States is willing to to accept nuclear arms reductions or controls short of denuclearization, and whether Kim Jong Un is willing to meet the United States halfway. To insist on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula at this point is to swim against the currents of history and North Korean strategic culture. (p. 208)

Regrettably, the Trump administration is not willing to accept anything less than denuclearization, and it is determined to swim against those currents. The opening that was created by the engagement policy of the South Korean government has been allowed to collapse thanks in large part to the Trump administration’s insistence on disarmament that was never going to happen. That is a huge missed opportunity, and it stands as one of this president’s more important foreign policy failures.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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