At the Latest Inter-Korean Summit, Kim Jong-un Created a Diplomatic Minefield for the United States


According to recent reports, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly protested the outcome of September’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. One source told the South Korean paper Chosun Ilbo that Pompeo “used strong language” to decry his South Korean counterpart for failing to consult the United States about issues agreed to at the summit.

Pompeo’s anger is not unwarranted. At the summit, the two Korean leaders signed a joint declaration that spoke of “transform[ing] the Korean Peninsula into a land of permanent peace.” They agreed to measures that may relieve economic pressure on the North without reducing the threat it poses.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared that “complete denuclearization is not far away” and that the good news “flooded his heart with emotion.” The South Korean president may believe that peace lies just over the horizon, but a closer examination suggests that Kim Jong Un is practicing the old North Korean art of playing on South Korean hopes to secure lucrative concessions while preserving his ability to coerce and extort his counterpart in Seoul. Effectively, Kim laid out a diplomatic minefield for Washington. The United States now faces the challenge of preventing the North Korean leader from exploiting the peace process without creating the impression that Washington is an obstacle to peace. To navigate this minefield, Washington must not waver in its pressure campaign against Pyongyang and must find creative ways to maintain the strength of the alliance with Seoul — the ultimate bulwark against the North as long as the Kim regime is in power. U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Biegun’s mission to Seoul, which concluded Tuesday, is designed to accomplish these goals.

A Declaration Favoring Kim

The Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018 addresses three key issues: reduction of tension, enhanced economic cooperation, and, perhaps most importantly, denuclearization. To reduce tensions, the two Korean militaries agreed to cease training exercises near the inter-Korean border after Nov. 1. Additionally, both sides will withdraw all guard posts in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in an effort to “transform the demilitarized zone into a peace zone,” as stated in the Panmunjom Declaration agreed to in April.

Despite the appearance of symmetry, these measures play into Kim’s hands, because North Korea’s conventional forces remain positioned near the border, ready to strike. In particular, the North has 14,000 artillery pieces that threaten front-line areas in South Korea with both conventional and chemical munitions. Arguably, Kim is setting the conditions to enhance his military position, while the relocation of exercises will reduce the combat readiness of U.S.-South Korea alliance forces. The proposed no-fly zone along the DMZ will limit surveillance operations and the ability to observe any attack preparations by the North. No-fly zones therefore could raise the chance of accidental conflict, as both sides will be “blindfolded” in verifying that the other is complying with the joint agreement.

Likewise, the economic cooperation measures to which Kim and Moon agreed may strengthen North Korea while dividing the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The leaders announced plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex on the northern side of the border and resume visits by southern tourists to the Kumgang Mountain resort. A month before the summit, the two Koreas opened a joint liaison office at Kaesong, which prompted concerns from U.S. officials regarding sanctions compliance. The U.N. Command allegedly denied a shipment of supplies to Kaesong due to these concerns.

Since Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Kumgang visits are both subject to U.N. sanctions that target clothing and textile exports, financial joint ventures with North Korea, and bulk cash transfers, reopening these facilities will require U.N. and U.S. sanctions waivers. Washington may be tempted to grant the waivers to avoid hindering the inter-Korean reconciliation, but Kaesong once generated as much as $100 million per year for Pyonygang, while Kumgang tourism brought in $40 million. If the United States grants waivers before North Korea denuclearizes, that income could finance Kim’s nuclear ambitions.

Although there have been reports of disagreement regarding sanctions relief, and while Moon has been criticized for prematurely seeking early lifting of sanctions, his statement on when sanctions should be reduced is often overlooked. He has stated that sanctions should only be lifted when North Korea’s denuclearization process has reached “a point of no return.” This often-overlooked statement is an indication that he is mostly in step with U.S. maximum pressure and will not prematurely lift sanctions.

On the nuclear front, Pyongyang agreed to allow foreign experts to witness the demolition of the Dongchang-ri (Sohae) missile launch pad and engine test site, which Kim promised to demolish at the Singapore summit in June. The North tested engines at Dongchang-ri for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the continental United States. Dismantling the site, however, will not significantly diminish the ICBM threat because North Korea now has road-mobile ICBMs, such as the Hwasong-15.

During the inter-Korean summit, North Korea did hint that it could permanently shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The destruction of Yongbyon would be only one of the nine steps necessary to dismantle a nuclear program that is spread among 141 known sites. Therefore, despite the supposed progress made at the summit, the United States should raise concerns about North Korea’s known and unknown nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, Kangson, and elsewhere.

More importantly, North Korea made it clear that any action on Yongbyon would be contingent upon the United States taking “corresponding measures” to implement the Singapore Joint Statement, which North Korean state media defined as America signing a joint declaration ending the Korean War. While Washington and Seoul share the objective of establishing peace (and peaceful unification), prematurely replacing the armistice with a treaty could jeopardize the U.N. command structure that  prevents a resumption of hostilities on the peninsula. The 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was an agreement among military commanders to suspend military operations, return prisoners, establish a DMZ, which both side pledged to respect. The U.N. Command is in place to ensure that the armistice is maintained. If Washington opposes a declaration ending the Korean War, it could find itself in a corner and be forced to accept such a declaration to avoid significant friction within the U.S.-South Korea alliance. If this happens, it is likely that North Korea, China, and certain factions within South Korea could call for the end of the U.N. Command.

In such a scenario, the North could extract more significant U.S. concessions, such as U.S. troop withdrawal, for the sake of the accelerating some kind of “peace” process. Presidential Adviser Moon Chung-in argued after the April Panmunjom summit that a peace treaty would remove the justification for U.S. troops in Korea. President Donald Trump already expressed a desire to bring U.S. troops home when he suspended combined U.S.-South Korea military exercises in exchange for the Sohae missile site dismantlement at the Singapore summit. Congress intervened by including language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act to prevent the U.S. troop level from falling below 22,000,though the administration can still override this restriction with a certification from the secretary of defense. Right now, the contours of a  Korean peace process are undefined, which causes much confusion in security discussions. Until an enforceable peace treaty can be signed that ensures security on the peninsula, it would be premature to withdraw U.S. troops despite calls from a number of parties.

As anticipation builds for a possible second Trump-Kim summit, Kim has reminded us of Pyongyang’s determination to exploit the peace process and ultimately break the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Most analysts question Kim’s motives and do not believe he has any intention of denuclearizing. On the other hand, Moon and his supporters believe the North Korean leader is sincere, that he actually seeks to normalize his country, and that, in return for economic support, he will in fact denuclearize. Despite the history of the Kim family regime breaking agreements and cheating, Moon is gambling that improved relations with the North will bring peace and denuclearization. The only way to determine which direction Kim will go is to test him.

Policy Options

While Washington and Seoul may have different priorities and even views of North Korea, they can still align objectives and actions for mutual support and reinforcement. There are several ways to synchronize the alliance and to test Kim Jong and his sincerity.

First, the alliance should establish a permanent combined Korea strategy working group at the White House and Blue House level to develop, coordinate, synchronize, and orchestrate alliance policy and strategy. Most importantly, this will mean a dedicated group is in place to oversee the integration of all elements of South Korean and U.S. power.

Second, the alliance should direct the R.O.K./U.S. Combined Forces Command to conduct a bottom-up combined review of the combined military capabilities as a way to determine the optimal force posture and military strategy of the combined force to support the political objectives. This would help the United States answer the question: What are the right forces to have on the peninsula, in rotation, and on the Time Phased Force Deployment Data (the detailed plan for the phased deployment of military forces from the United States to Korea) to support deterrence, conduct combined contingency operations, and — in the worst case scenario— fight and win a war? This review could help to right-size the force while improving capabilities, thereby fulfilling the U.S. objective of ensuring an effective U.S. contribution to deterrence and defense of South Korea, while satisfying South Korea’s desire for a potentially less visible U.S. troop presence while maintaining the most effective combined military capabilities.

Third, the alliance should rescale the combined exercise program to end “named exercises” and conduct routine winter and summer training cycles as the North does (and offer observer exchanges). Rather than focus on readiness and messaging, with highly visible named exercises designed to send signals to the North Koreans, exercises will instead focus on readiness for contingencies and defensive preparations against an attack as a matter of routine. The U.S. presence is the simple message and it speaks louder than words. The U.S. presence has contributed to deterrence for the past 65 years and it will continue to do so as long as the South Korean and U.S. governments believe it is necessary to be ready to defend against the threat from the North. This can and should be done without the “provocative” posture, as Trump called the combined “war games.”

Fourth, the United States should also maintain a multifaceted sanctions pressure campaign to isolate North Korea from its illicit activities and resources that violate U.S. and U.N. sanctions. This campaign has been working: Although the North Korean foreign ministry suggested that sanctions had no significant impact on North Korean strategic rationale, Pyongyang’s recent push to have these measures lifted suggests otherwise. Additionally, earlier this year, at the height of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.N. Security Council’s commodities sanctions targeting textiles, seafood, and other key industries had an almost immediate impact in certain regions of China.

With reports suggesting that certain nations, namely Russia and China, are backsliding on sanctions as summitry continues, the U.S. Treasury Department should continue targeting sanctions violators even during this period of diplomacy. There is always room to hold Pyongyang accountable for its rampant illicit activities around the world, from counterfeiting to drug trafficking to the use of slave labor that finances its nuclear and missile programs and keeps the regime in power.

Fifth, amid the ongoing pressure campaign, Washington and Seoul should also consider allowing the South to conduct a focused economic engagement campaign to develop a legitimate inter-Korean economic relationship. Providing select sanctions waivers could give Kim a chance to demonstrate that he is making the strategic choice to develop his economy by forgoing his nuclear and missile programs. Although this option is likely to generate tremendous pushback from those who want to maintain 100 percent maximum pressure, such a campaign can be used to test Kim. More importantly, this limited economic opening would serve as a compromise between Washington and Seoul over North Korea engagement policy. Seoul can use these financial incentives to push for greater Northern concessions on denuclearization in exchange for further aid. Also, should Kim backslide, the campaign can be metered or completely shut down.

In addition, Washington and Pyongyang must avoid the mistake of reaching a nuclear-only deal that forsakes the Kim family regime’s egregious human rights abuses and non-nuclear threats. The U.S.-South Korea alliance and the international community should focus on halting the North’s illicit cyber activities and dismantling its non-nuclear WMD capabilities. Both asymmetric assets allow Pyongyang to still coerce its adversaries even without nuclear weapons.

These security issues also cannot sideline human rights, which are an international security priority in and of themselves. In return for economic development and a path to normalized relations, North Korea must address its human right abuses. This must be on both the North-South and U.S.-North Korea agendas.

Finally, the alliance must continue to work toward solving the “Korea question” (Paragraph 60 of the Armistice) and achieving the acceptable, durable, and political arrangement on the Korean peninsula that will serve, protect, and advance U.S.-South Korea alliance interests and values.

The North Korean government has indeed manipulated diplomacy to make it difficult for Washington to withhold concessions and impose pressure on Pyongyang. As the two Koreas ramp up their call for a premature lifting of sanctions rather than just an end of war declaration, the Trump administration finds itself at a crossroads in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. While it is imperative that Washington not give Pyongyang too much too early in the nuclear dismantlement process, it must also do everything it can to preserve its alliance with Seoul.

Washington needs to remind Kim that he also needs to deliver with concrete and credible actions. South Korea and the United States can provide incentives and opportunities that test him. Until Pyongyang delivers, Trump should continue to contain and pressure North Korea by enforcing sanctions to prevent all North Korean illicit activities and sustaining a strong U.S.-South Korea alliance — all while working with South Korea to test Kim’s sincerity as appropriate. Ultimately, as long as the Kim family regime exists, the U.S.-South Korea alliance must maintain a sufficient level of deterrence and defense to guard against any provocation, contingency, or hostile action initiated by the North.

David Maxwell is a senior fellow at FDD. He is a 30-year veteran of the United States Army, retiring in 2011 as a Special Forces colonel, with his final assignment serving on the military faculty teaching national security strategy at the National War College. Mathew Ha is a research associate at FDD focusing on North Korea. Follow them on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.