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A man watches TV screens showing North Korean weapons systems in Seoul. A man watches TV screens showing North Korean weapons systems, top right, in Seoul, South Korea, May 10, 2019 (AP photo by Ahn Young-joon).

Where Trump Went Wrong on North Korea Nuclear Diplomacy

Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020

After more than two years at the forefront of the international agenda, North Korea denuclearization efforts have faded from view, leaving little progress to show for it. Critics say the Trump administration took a flawed approach to the negotiations—and the U.S. trade war with China didn’t help. Meanwhile, North Koreans continue to suffer.

Ending North Korea’s nuclearization efforts moved to the forefront of the international agenda soon after U.S. President Donald Trump took office in 2017, and stayed there for more than two years. But despite a period of improved relations between North and South Korea and two unprecedented face-to-face meetings between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, no clear progress was made toward denuclearizing North Korea. It has now largely faded from view as a priority for the Trump administration.

Trump framed the meetings and his personal relationship with Kim as a promising start to a potential breakthrough, and subsequently claimed that he single-handedly avoided war with North Korea. But critics point to the lack of headway in the failed talks, which they blame on the Trump administration’s flawed approach to the negotiations. For his part, Kim has refused to even begin drawing down the program that is essentially his regime’s only bargaining chip unless the international community drops its sanctions. Hard-liners in Washington, on the other hand, would like to see meaningful steps toward denuclearization before they lift any restrictions.

The trade war between China and the United States did little to help matters, as it created tensions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, one of the few leaders with any leverage over Kim due to North Korea’s economic dependence on China. Meanwhile, South Korea struggled to maintain its earlier diplomatic momentum in thawing relations with Pyongyang, without much to show for its engagement with its northern neighbor. In June, Pyongyang essentially closed the door to any further engagement by very publicly blowing up a building that had served as the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, since 2018.

With global sanctions still in place, North Korean citizens continue to suffer. A 2019 report from United Nations human rights officials revealed a population dependent on informal but officially tolerated markets and subjected to constant bribery demands from North Korean officials. The World Food Program has estimated that 10.1 million North Koreans are suffering from food shortages.

WPR has covered North Korea in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Is there any hope for Trump to revive his diplomatic engagement with Kim? Will Pyongyang resort to a new round of provocative missile and nuclear tests to pressure the U.S. into reengaging? What role will Trump’s failed talks with Kim play in the upcoming U.S. presidential election? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

As North Korea’s Economy Reels, Kim Looks to Tighten Control

Kim Jong Un acknowledged last month that North Korea’s current economic strategy is not working. His announcement underscored the depth of the country’s economic troubles, and was a symbolic sign of just how radically Pyongyang has had to shift its economic ambitions downward over the past few years.


[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]


Domestic Politics & North-South Relations

Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has made developing the country’s economy a priority, equal to the goal of achieving a nuclear weapons capability. As part of that initiative, he has tolerated the emergence of informal local markets, but any meaningful improvement in the population’s condition will require the lifting of international sanctions. Meanwhile, the relationship between North and South Korea has chilled after a brief thaw immediately preceding and following the initial Kim-Trump summit. Kim traveled to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone in 2018, marking the first time a North Korean leader had crossed the border into the South, and again last year. And the two sides spelled out steps to expand exchanges and cooperation, in the hopes of eventually achieving a denuclearized Korean peninsula. But as relations between Pyongyang and Washington began to deteriorate, relations with Seoul did also.

Nuclear and Missile Program

In addition to recent short-range missile tests, there is evidence of activity at North Korea’s main nuclear site, leaving little reason to believe Kim’s promise that he has put the country’s nuclear program on hold. Pyongyang maintains that it has already developed a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States, but the continued nuclear activity could put more pressure on global powers to reach some sort of agreement. That includes China, which would also like to see the program ended, as it would remove an excuse for Washington to maintain troops in South Korea. But Xi may not be interested in taking any steps to deliver a political victory to Trump at the moment.

Trump’s Nuclear Diplomacy

After a contentious beginning to the relationship between Trump and Kim, the two appeared to warm to each other. But now that Kim seems intent on undermining what Trump sees as one of his main foreign policy achievements just as the U.S. presidential election season heats up, sparks could fly again between the two leaders. Ultimately, Trump’s team appears to have failed to put enough resources into the discussions or to broaden the talks beyond just denuclearization, which may have backed Kim into a corner.


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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