When it comes to America’s last-ditch effort to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, timing has been everything. Now time’s running out.
Earlier this month, at a NATO summit in London, Donald Trump declared that “we have peace” with North Korea and that he had a better “personal relationship” with Kim Jong Un than the dictator had with possibly anyone else “in the world.”
Hours later, I stood in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., with U.S. and South Korean officials and North Korea experts at a reception hosted by the Korea Foundation, a public-diplomacy organization affiliated with the South Korean government. The president’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, spoke in subdued tones about how he felt the “weight” of the past year on his “own shoulders,” his actual slouched shoulders completing the picture of a diplomat repeatedly spurned. “Obviously we have not made as much progress as we would have hoped at this point, but let me be absolutely clear: We have not given up,” he stated, the platitude seeming to belie the message.
As Biegun made a beeline for the bar, attendees dining on potatoes au gratin and deviled eggs speculated not about peace in our time but rather about what sort of provocation Kim was plotting. A North Korean official had just threatened to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the United States if the U.S. doesn’t assume a more flexible position in nuclear negotiations by the end of the year. As far as punitive gift-giving goes, North Korea tends to favor demonstrations of fearsome weapons over lumps of coal.
The subtext of all the nervous talk was that Trump’s once-promising diplomacy with Kim is rapidly unraveling. The two leaders are no longer unknown quantities to each other, making a return to the military brinkmanship of 2017—perhaps the most dangerous standoff involving nuclear weapons since the Cuban missile crisis—less likely. But as the new year nears, the United States and North Korea are reverting to their old ways, however half-heartedly.
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Although Trump says his friendship with Kim has produced a more peaceful North Korea, the reality, especially of late, has been quite different. Since May, North Korea has tested more missiles than it has in any other year in its history, except possibly 2016, according to the analyst Ankit Panda. It never stopped producing fissile material for nuclear bombs. Think tanks are pumping out reports on establishing “maximum pressure 2.0” against Pyongyang. The name-calling is back: Kim is once more “Rocket Man,” Trump a senile “dotard.” Satellites are spotting renewed activity at North Korean nuclear sites, while Kim has resumed testing at a rocket-launch site he had promised to dismantle in 2018. U.S. officials are yet again warning of military options. North Korean officials are proclaiming the days of denuclearization negotiations over. Kim is galloping around on white horses, and let’s just say it’s not because white symbolizes peace.
Desperate to salvage the détente, Trump has been warning Kim not to “interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election” (as if North Korea’s totalitarian leader has qualms about messing with American democracy) or to “void his special relationship with the President of the United States” (as if their bromance were contractual). He has relentlessly downplayed the recent spurt of missile tests, even as they’ve become more sophisticated and harder to dismiss. “You can’t have the North Koreans, for example, do a submarine-launched [nuclear-capable] missile test and say it’s okay, while your closest ally, Japan, is going batshit,” Joseph Yun, who served as the State Department’s North Korea envoy from 2016 to 2018, told me.
Pronouncing the diplomacy dead would be premature. There’s a chance that the North Koreans are simply trying to pressure Trump into making a deal on their terms as he faces reelection. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable comedown for the Trump administration’s signature initiative to address what it has billed as the country’s top security threat. This is the policy in which the president has invested the most time and resources, the one that he has touted as his greatest success and made a model (maximum pressure + personal engagement by the president = wins for America) in his dealings everywhere from China to Iran. What’s at stake, though, isn’t just Trump’s legacy in foreign affairs or the Nobel Peace Prize he so clearly desires. Also at the mercy of what comes next are global efforts to stop the spread of the world’s most destructive weapons and potentially one of the last opportunities to reconcile North and South Korea after 70 years of alienation.
Washington and Pyongyang are returning so easily to the bad old days because the underlying issue that occasioned the 2017 showdown—North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons that can threaten the whole world, including the United States and its allies—has not dissipated one bit despite all the diplomacy, and has in fact become more grave.
What the president currently has to show for his efforts are the toughest international sanctions ever imposed on North Korea; a nonbinding suspension of North Korean nuclear- and long-range-missile tests; a shattered taboo against American and North Korean leaders meeting; a vague North Korean commitment to denuclearization; a semi-destroyed nuclear-test site; and the return of some American hostages and the remains of U.S. soldiers. The crisis with North Korea is less acute now than it was in 2016 and 2017, but the progress is modest and subject to change at any moment.
The story of how Trump’s North Korea policy collapsed is in part one of Pyongyang’s intransigence, obfuscation, and bad faith in talks about its nuclear program, as well as one in which U.S. and North Korean officials misread one another and at times placed too much stock in the rosy messages of the South Korean government, a key intermediary.
But it’s also a tale about the American president undercutting his own success. Trump prioritized the North Korean threat, amassed unmatched leverage against Pyongyang, and boldly shook up America’s approach to its decades-old adversary. Yet he squandered many of these gains during his first summit with Kim, in Singapore, and set several precedents there that have hobbled nuclear talks ever since. He shifted the paradigm with North Korea in style but not in substance. While transforming the role of the president in negotiations with North Korea, he did not bring the same inventiveness to the negotiations themselves.
THE ‘FIRE AND FURY’ ERA
The story begins not with Barack Obama huddling in the Oval Office with President-elect Trump in 2016 and stating that he was on the verge of unleashing World War III on North Korea, as Trump likes to tell it, but rather with the 44th president soberly informing his successor that Trump’s principal national-security challenge would be North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear program.
What Obama told Trump was, “You have to be attuned to the risk of them being able to put a [nuclear] warhead” on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, told me. The message seemed to register with Trump, which was notable because the commander in chief in waiting otherwise spent much of the meeting boasting about the size of his crowds.
Trump, in fact, took Obama’s warning seriously. In the first months of the new administration, officials hurtled in a direction that the Obama White House had been heading in more gingerly, dubbing their policy “maximum pressure” and staking out a lofty goal: convincing Kim that he would be safer without his nuclear arsenal than with it.
In early 2017, incoming administration officials, many of whom, like Trump, didn’t have a lot of government experience, “didn’t know much about the history of the North Korean nuclear issue, so they pretty much looked at the old textbook” and adopted the objective of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) from past (ultimately unsuccessful) diplomacy with Pyongyang, a former U.S. official familiar with North Korea policy, who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity, told me. (These terms date to a time before North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon. It has since tested six.) “People raised the bar too high” for what could be accomplished and how quickly, the former official noted. Administration officials would later confront North Korean stonewalling and immerse themselves in the technical aspects of Kim’s sprawling nuclear program. They realized “that [CVID] is really hard, so they’ve made some adjustments” and come to recognize that they “don’t have to go out and pound their chest” about that goal, the former official said.
Though the objective was old, the pressures the Trump administration brought to bear to accomplish it were new and disruptive. Vincent Brooks, who commanded U.S. forces in South Korea from 2016 to 2018, told me that when he first assumed command there, under the Obama administration, he found that the United States was “not achieving effective deterrence,” particularly “in the nuclear arena,” with North Korea, which had grown comfortable with restrained U.S. and South Korean responses to its provocations. The Trump administration soon began implementing ideas contemplated in the previous administration but never carried out, such as launching missiles at targets in the East Sea at the same time North Korea test-fired its missiles and reorienting the flight paths of bomber aircraft exercising within striking distance of North Korea. Brooks described one of these missions as the most effective he’d witnessed in five years of focusing on North Korea, because it prompted Kim’s military to modify its positioning.
During the summer and fall of 2017, as Kim tested ICBMs and his country’s most powerful nuclear bomb yet, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster raised the specter of a cataclysmic war to prevent North Korea from emerging as a nuclear power.
“We were seriously in preparation for war” and “very close” to a miscalculation that could have sparked a conflict, Brooks recalled, but ultimately the aim was “to create room for diplomacy to actually take effect.” It wasn’t like the U.S. military was timing activities off of Trump’s comments, but Brooks said the president’s rhetoric and unpredictability helped him. “Sometimes you can actually move a pretty heavy object when you’ve got the ground vibrating underneath of it. That’s exactly how I described it to my staff.”
Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, similarly told me that while Trump wasn’t really planning to instigate a military conflict with North Korea, she let on that he might be just crazy enough to do so in order to enlist Chinese support for three rounds of extremely severe UN Security Council sanctions resolutions against North Korea. Trump “was on board with the act,” Haley writes in her new book, With All Due Respect.
The military and economic pressure contributed to Kim’s decisions to declare his nuclear program “completed” in November 2017 and to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea a few months later, which broke the war fever and eventually resulted in Trump shocking the world by accepting Kim’s invitation to become the first American president to meet with North Korea’s leader.
Less shocked were Trump’s own advisers. “My understanding was that [Trump] was always open to a leader-level engagement,” Yun said. But he couldn’t act on that impulse at first, because of North Korea’s provocations and “opposition from other senior officials in the administration who felt this was not a good idea.”
THE SINGAPORE SUMMIT
The run-up to Trump’s first summit with Kim, in Singapore in the summer of 2018, was a time of ebullience among those who favor diplomatic engagement with North Korea and even guarded optimism, or at least skeptical acquiescence, among some hawks relieved to be off a war footing.
Visiting South Korea a month before the summit, I traveled to the heavily militarized border and found a “peace and prosperity” tree that the North and South Korean leaders had planted when they met for the first time, that April—an evocative image, if still just a Band-Aid on the deep wounds of the Korean War, a three-year conflict that killed millions and left an enduring legacy of division and hostility. I watched on television as Trump welcomed home Americans unjustly detained and then released by Kim. After 25 years of fitful lower-level nuclear talks with the North Koreans, which Madeleine Albright once compared to climbing one mountain only to discover that a series of others lay ahead, an unconventional American president was heading straight for the highest summit, where he would encounter the one person in North Korea with the authority to end the country’s nuclear program.
Even the biggest hiccup on the way to Singapore—Trump temporarily canceling the meeting—was in its own surreal way an encouraging sign, since it amounted to a rebuke of North Korea for not taking the negotiations seriously and helped jump-start two weeks of talks ahead of the summit.
Those discussions were intensive, but they weren’t especially fruitful. North Korean officials resisted including any language on denuclearization in the draft summit statement, arguing that it wasn’t necessary, because they were already carrying out the process, but the U.S. insisted that it be included, the former U.S. official familiar with North Korea policy told me. (Kim had already halted weapons tests and made a public show of blowing up his nuclear-test site.) In the end, the parties agreed to incorporate the cryptic “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” phrasing contained in the declaration that came out of that spring’s meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea.
That phrasing is intentionally unclear. The Americans take it to mean North Korea getting rid of its nuclear program. But for the North Koreans, it’s assumed to include the United States reciprocating Pyongyang’s denuclearization by withdrawing the “nuclear umbrella” it provides to its South Korean ally in the form of extended-deterrence commitments and exercises that bring nuclear-capable vessels and aircraft to the peninsula and the surrounding region. Doing so would entail major changes to America’s military alliances and strategy in East Asia.
Over the course of one momentous day in Singapore, Trump shook Kim’s hand, played him a faux movie trailer about the economic bounty awaiting a nuclear-free North Korea, and joined the North Korean leader in committing in writing to strive for peace and denuclearization. Unlike traditional leader-to-leader summits, Singapore was “meet and agree first and then fill out the details later,” Brooks said, adding that he felt this was a wise method, “given the personalities involved and their approach to central leadership, top-down decision making.”
But this also established a problematic pattern for future meetings between Trump and Kim: Set a date and venue, and then have negotiators scramble to figure out the details of what’s actually achievable without necessarily empowering those lower-level officials. The top-down approach short-circuited bottom-up talks rather than turbocharging them.
That wasn’t the only troublesome precedent that the Singapore summit set. Trump also began framing the diplomatic effort to denuclearize North Korea in far more personal, triumphalist terms, as something he alone could accomplish because of his dealmaking savvy and chemistry with Kim. Instead of an unusual means, his reality-TV diplomacy became an end in itself. This only solidified the North Korean view that it was best to deal directly with the president rather than with his more detail-oriented and less flexible subordinates. Kim echoed this narrative in letters he exchanged with Trump.
Then, at a press conference after the Singapore summit, Trump surprised his own advisers and his allies in Seoul by acceding to a long-standing North Korean demand and unilaterally suspending joint military exercises with South Korea without extracting anything from Kim in return.
Ultimately, the cancellation of military drills, which strained the U.S. alliance with South Korea, “didn't create [an] advantage for us,” Brooks said. If the exercises had been ratcheted down more tactically ahead of some next stage in the diplomatic campaign, he noted, the move might have been more effective.
For the North Koreans, Yun said, the “lesson is essentially—this is not just in Singapore, but throughout—that only by dealing with Trump are they going to get what they want.”
At the press conference, Trump touted North Korea’s claim of having destroyed a nuclear-test site and the country’s promise to dismantle a missile-engine-test site, in both cases without outside verification, as major accomplishments. On his way home from Singapore, he tweeted that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” All of this also signaled that Trump was eager to characterize even superficial steps toward denuclearization as significant successes. The president’s penchant for hyperbole came at a tender stage, when expectations were still forming.
Biegun often refers to the brief Singapore joint statement, which remains the only agreement the United States and North Korea have signed in the past two years, as a helpful framework for negotiators. But Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat and one of the highest-ranking officials to ever defect from the country, recently told me that he thinks the statement was the beginning of the end for Trump’s diplomatic gambit, because it listed the goals of establishing new relations between the two countries and constructing a “peace regime” on the Korean peninsula ahead of Pyongyang’s pledge “to work toward complete denuclearization.”
The North Koreans have hewed to that order of operations ever since, he argued. “It was really a diplomatic disaster for President Trump to sign that Singapore agreement,” said Thae, who had praised the president’s approach when I met him during the “fire and fury” era.
While U.S. officials tend to think of sanctions relief as the supreme economic inducement for denuclearization, the North Koreans believe it is a prerequisite for improved relations. “I don’t know” if Kim truly intends to give up all his nuclear weapons, the former U.S. official acknowledged. What Kim appears to ideally want is a new relationship with the United States and the lifting of sanctions in exchange for ceding part of his nuclear program. The North Koreans “want us to get rid of sanctions right away. It took them several months to really clarify that that is the highest priority for them.”
If the U.S. had demanded more detail on denuclearization in the joint statement, the Singapore meeting wouldn’t have happened, squandering an opportunity to bring the two leaders together and risking a return to the military tensions of 2017, the former U.S. official continued. If the U.S. had walked away from the summit without a statement, it might not have experienced the relatively peaceful period with North Korea that it has had since then. As the U.S. side saw it, the parties could go into more detail on denuclearization after Singapore.
But the Trump administration soon discovered just how difficult that would be. Weeks after the Singapore summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang to ask Kim for an inventory of the various elements of his nuclear program. The North Koreans denounced Pompeo’s “gangster-like demand for denuclearization” and ran him out of town.
THE VIETNAM SUMMIT AND BEYOND
It took half a year after Singapore for Biegun and his North Korean counterpart to meet, in part because of a couple of months of North Korean unresponsiveness in the fall of 2018. This turned out to be a costly period of inactivity. “U.S.-China relations deteriorated over trade, and North Korea won a premature end to maximum pressure” as the Chinese, by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, eased up on sanctions enforcement, Leif-Eric Easley, an international-studies professor at Ewha Womans University, in Seoul, told me. “If Pyongyang ever intended to take any denuclearization steps at all, its willingness to do so went down and its price for cooperation went up after Singapore.”
Working-level talks commenced only when Trump announced another summit with Kim, in February 2019 in Vietnam, following a flurry of effusive correspondence between the leaders. Biegun’s counterpart then refused to substantively engage with him on nuclear issues.
The North Korean government had decided to “exclusively conduct that [nuclear] negotiation at the leader level when Chairman Kim arrived in Hanoi,” Biegun recalled at an Atlantic Council event I attended in the summer. So U.S. and North Korean officials “put as much as we could into place on paper” and braced for the summit.
Based on where the negotiations stood at the time, the summit probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But it did, because of the Singapore precedent.
This is “when it started going all awry,” Victor Cha, who participated in nuclear talks with the North Koreans while serving in the George W. Bush administration, told me. “We went into that [Hanoi] meeting with our two leaders with no clarity at all on what they would say on the nuclear side,” which indicated that even the meeting in Singapore had not changed North Korea’s traditional “negotiating tactics at all … That was when I got really worried.”
And for good reason. What followed was a blowup: Kim proposed dismantling his Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions; Trump counteroffered that Kim relinquish his whole weapons-of-mass-destruction program in return for full sanctions relief; each party scoffed at the other’s audacity; and Trump walked away from the negotiations in a brash move that earned plaudits in Washington but stunned and humiliated Kim, who is not exactly used to being told no.
Moon Chung In, a foreign-policy adviser to South Korea’s president and a professor emeritus at Yonsei University, in Seoul, told me that he viewed Trump as “the best and perhaps the last hope” to diplomatically resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. “No other Western leader could cultivate such a cozy relationship with Chairman Kim Jong Un in such a short time period.”
But Moon, who advocates for diplomatic engagement with North Korea and said he was speaking in an unofficial capacity, added that he thought Trump “made a fundamental mistake in Hanoi” by not sticking around for lunch with Kim, discussing his proposal, and launching working-level talks on trading the Yongbyon facility for some sanctions relief. “That could have saved Kim Jong Un's face and reactivated practical talks,” he argued.
Instead, North Korea has largely stopped cooperating with both the United States and South Korea since the Hanoi summit. Trump extracted a promise from Kim to restart working-level talks when the two leaders met for a third time, this summer at the border between the Koreas, but the president didn’t so much as publicly mention North Korea’s nuclear program during that impromptu meeting and expressed no displeasure, publicly at least, when North Korean negotiators avoided meeting Biegun for months afterward.
“One [leader-level] meeting was a good move to open [the diplomacy] up, but then to meet twice more and get nothing done in the meanwhile was a mistake,” Yun said. “I have never believed that the North Koreans would give up their nuclear weapons quickly.” His desire was that the Singapore summit would, within Trump’s first term, establish a process for “changing relations, changing each other’s threat perceptions,” step by step over decades. “But it hasn’t yet.”
Biegun finally met with his North Korean counterpart in Stockholm in October, but the North Korean negotiating team ditched the talks in a fit of what appeared to be preplanned pique. The North Koreans “weren’t there to talk,” Joel Wit, a North Korea expert and former State Department official, told me. It was “an ambush.” Biegun’s hope was that the Hanoi walkout would spur Kim to empower his negotiators to discuss denuclearization, but that hasn’t come to pass. Biegun recently told a Senate committee that Trump wants “a deal or a near-deal” before another summit with Kim, but it’s rather late in the game to be setting those sorts of expectations.
“The failure of the [Hanoi] summit seems to have triggered a debate inside North Korea about whether Kim’s initiative [with Trump] was worthwhile,” and “it’s played out to the degree that their position has hardened quite a bit,” Wit said. “Everything indicates that they’re not coming back, or at least not coming back in the near future, to the negotiating table.” The Trump administration has not yet succeeded in convincing Kim that he is more secure without nuclear arms than with them. Pressure can be maximized. Engagement can be maximized. But one of the lessons of the past three years is that neither apparently surpasses the value Kim assigns to his nukes.
If the president’s nuclear diplomacy does ultimately fail, it may be because he is a paradigm-shifting figure who never changed the paradigm of negotiations with Pyongyang beyond inserting himself into the talks. Imagine, for instance, if Trump had informed Americans that his predecessors had all been fools and left him with no choice but to focus on something more realistic with North Korea, such as arms-control talks to manage and reduce the North Korean nuclear threat, while retaining the aspirational goal of denuclearization. Instead, the administration has held off on transforming relations with North Korea and easing sanctions until Kim commits to complete denuclearization.
And if Kim leaves Trump with no choice but to pivot away from diplomacy, doing so won’t be easy for the president. Over the past two years, he has gone from threatening war to boasting that he averted it, from preparing for conflict to canceling military exercises, from being laser-focused on North Korea’s nuclear development to ignoring it, from pressing the North Koreans to enter negotiations by all means to clinging to collapsing talks under North Korean pressure, from denouncing North Korea’s dictator to praising him. Where he once recruited an extensive international coalition to apply maximum pressure on North Korea, he has now reduced his maximum-engagement bid to just two people: himself and Kim. If it becomes only Trump and no Kim, what then?
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