Diplomacy Without Denuclearization: North Korea in 2018


Editor’s Note: As 2018 comes to a close, War on the Rocks is publishing a series of year-end reflections on what our editors and contributors learned from the publication’s coverage of various national security topics. These reflections will examine how War on the Rocks coverage evolved over the year, what it taught us about the issue in question, and what questions remain to be answered in 2019 and beyond. Enjoy, and see you next year!


As 2018 comes to a close, tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain significantly lower than at the end of 2017, when the prospect of a U.S. limited strike on North Korea — or worse — was a fixture of the debate. After having attained what he saw as the necessary capabilities to deter the United States with nuclear weapons in 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned the tables this year.

Beginning with his New Year’s Day address, Kim initiated a process of diplomatic rapprochement with South Korea that quickly led to a reduction in tensions with the United States, reaching its apotheosis in June with the Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and himself. Kim had achieved something his father and grandfather never did: a nuclear deterrent and, as a result, a one-one meeting with the president of the United States. If there ever was a dynamic year on the Korean Peninsula, 2018 was it.

Throughout the year, War on the Rocks coverage evolved as events and the narrative on the peninsula shifted. At the beginning of the year, authors discussed concerns about possible North Korean provocations under Kim’s newfound intercontinental-range ballistic missile-enabled deterrent. The day before the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, North Korea staged a military parade where it showed off its Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-14 ICBMs, reminding the world of its capabilities.

Momentum shifted quickly, however. The historic Panmunjom Summit on April 27 was on us not long after PyeongChang, galvanizing an unmistakable shift away from the brinkmanship that defined 2017. As Ramon Pacheco Pardo noted, the lead-up to Panmunjom and the summit itself squarely established South Korean President Moon Jae-in as the prime mover of diplomacy with North Korea. Moon’s efforts rapidly generated expansive inter-Korean contacts, and he would later find himself working to broker diplomacy between the United States and North Korea. In May, he convened an impromptu meeting with Kim after Trump suddenly called off the Singapore summit; after Pompeo’s disastrous July trip to Pyongyang and canceled trip to North Korea in August, it would be Moon’s efforts through the October Pyongyang summit that defibrillated U.S.-North Korea diplomacy.

To the lay observer, 2018 brought the appearance of denuclearization, if not the real thing. After the February parade, North Korea tucked its nuclear forces away and ended a years-long streak of showing off pictures and videos of tests at these events. In Singapore in June with Trump and in Pyongyang with Moon in September, Kim agreed to dismantle a missile engine test stand. By July, Kim had partially followed through on dismantling the stand. As of the end of 2018, it remains in that state, but can be easily reconstituted if necessary.

The Singapore summit was, by all accounts, historic because it was the first encounter between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. But the outcomes were limited in value and largely borrowed language that the two countries had established some 25 years prior. The summit helped walk Trump and Kim back from the brink, but it did not advance the cause of denuclearization or fundamentally help alter the divergences between Washington and Pyongyang.

In October, during Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, Kim agreed to allow some form of verification activity at Punggye-ri, the site of all of North Korea’s nuclear testing that the regime had performatively demolished in an unverifiable and potentially reversible way in May. As one U.S. official noted at the time, North Korea had made the same offer in the spring, but its reintroduction in October shows how Kim has mastered the art of repackaging and stringing out concessions.

Significantly, neither the concession related to the missile engine test stand nor the nuclear test site has a particular bearing on the “mass production” of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons — a goal Kim set out in his New Year’s Day address. A testing freeze, contrary to President Trump’s exhortations, does not entail the end of the North Korean nuclear threat.

The October inter-Korean summit declaration even dangled the possibility of dismantlement activities at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex, but it was short on details and pointedly non-committal. None of the steps North Korea has taken this year has brought the United States any closer to capping the quantitative expansion of Kim’s arsenal or reducing weapons and delivery systems already manufactured and deployed.

Thus, as the year comes to a close, there should be no illusion about progress on disarmament. Even as the inter-Korean diplomatic process has yielded substantial confidence-building and conventional threat reduction — laudable achievements, to be sure — North Korea maintains its nuclear forces and is actively expanding them. As Jeffrey Lewis’ work of fiction, the 2020 Commission, reminds us, the mistrust and lack of communication between the United States and North Korea — as well as alliance coordination problems between the United States and South Korea — leave the possibility of a new crisis all too high.

Trump’s continued claim that he “solved” the North Korean crisis, therefore, befuddled most analysts and observers. Either he did not understand that shuttering test sites had no bearing on disarmament, or he did not care. As a steady stream of news continued to highlight the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it became evident that Trump simply did not care that North Korea was not unilaterally disarming, so long as it did not test missiles or nuclear weapons to publicly embarrass him and take away his ratings win. Kim pretended he was going to disarm in Singapore, and Trump pretended to believe him.

The problem is that there are administration officials, notably National Security Adviser John Bolton, who might care more than their boss does that North Korea isn’t disarming. Indeed, North Korea has not only attempted to divide the United States and South Korea this year, it has also persistently tried to drive a wedge between Trump and his own administration by calling Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warmongers who insist on unilateral disarmament without offering any corresponding concessions. Yet the regime reserves nothing but praise for Trump, heaping it on likely in the hopes that there can be a second Kim-Trump summit in 2019. In that event, North Korea would be more likely to extract concessions directly from Trump on military exercises, the broader U.S. footprint in the region, a peace treaty, and potentially sanctions relief. This situation has left working-level meetings on life support while both heads of state angle for another one-on-one summit.

The question is whether a second summit can yield tangible outcomes to keep the diplomatic process going, or whether Kim and Trump will continue their unsustainable fiction. On the one hand, forced to choose between Kim, with whom Trump “fell in love,” or Bolton, it is not a foregone conclusion that the president will hew to his advisers’ views. On the other hand, a strategy that relies on denying the reality of nuclear North Korea risks implosion or explosion at some point.

Although Washington is allergic to “accepting” or thinking about “living with” a nuclear North Korea, this is the reality we confront today. And America’s all-or-nothing unilateral disarmament push — with one camp militantly insisting on it prior to making concessions, and another camp pretending it is actually already happening — sets North Korea and the United States on a collision course that could be worse than the 2017 crisis. As Lindsey Ford wrote in these pages, an inability to adapt to new realities on the Korean Peninsula hampers U.S. interests. While North Korea’s force continues to grow and Trump publicly denies it, there is little discussion of how to slow the buildup or prevent North Korea from proliferating nuclear and missile technology to other countries. Meaningful arms control objectives — ranging from a formalized missile test moratorium to more ambitious ones like the destruction of deployed missiles and a fissile material production cap — are being ignored in order to sustain the fiction that North Korea is disarming. The path most likely to yield lasting peace is one that sets denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as a long-term goal, but focuses on managing the growth and export of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in the short term. A diplomatic effort that singularly insists on unilateral North Korean disarmament is pushing on the wrong door.

To this end, the debate in War on the Rocks has addressed possible productive pathways ahead with North Korea short of the Trump administration’s stated goal of “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea”—a formulation against which North Korea strongly pushed back at the end of the year, clearly reiterating that it would not unilaterally disarm and demanding significant concessions from the United States before even contemplating doing so. In this regard, Pyongyang’s possible accession to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and a possible declaration to end the Korean War received due attention.

The apparent reduction in tensions in 2018 should not give way to an illusory sense of comfort. As a self-proclaimed nuclear power in the process of deploying nuclear forces, North Korea is in one of the more dangerous stages of nuclear management. If Trump decides he is displeased with North Korea’s progress or feels betrayed by Kim skirting the line with, for example, a satellite vehicle launch which technically isn’t a missile test but really is — or if North Korea decides that U.S. absolutism on sanctions relief is too rigid — there’s plenty of room for a new crisis.


Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) is a senior editor at The Diplomat, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) is an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks.