Where Trump Went Wrong on North Korea Nuclear Diplomacy

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).
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).
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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 subsequently faded from view as a priority for the Trump administration, which will now pass the intractable problem along to the incoming Biden administration intact.

Trump framed the leaders’ two summit meetings and his personal relationship with Kim as a promising start to a potential breakthrough, and claimed that he single-handedly avoided war with North Korea. But critics pointed to the lack of headway in the failed talks, which they blamed on the Trump administration’s flawed approach to the negotiations. For his part, Kim has refused to even begin drawing down the nuclear weapons and missile programs that are essentially his regime’s life insurance policy—and its only bargaining chip to get the international community to drop punishing sanctions. President-elect Joe Biden will take office in January with little room for maneuver, and even less should Kim greet him with a high-profile missile or nuclear test in the early days of his presidency, as many observers expect.

Trump’s trade war with China and the United States has done 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, although tensions have eased more recently.

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. How will Biden reorient U.S. policy toward North Korea? Will Pyongyang resort to a new round of provocative missile and nuclear tests to pressure him into reengaging? What’s ahead for inter-Korean relations once the Biden administration takes office in Washington? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Will Biden Go Big or Go Backward on North Korea Diplomacy?

Upon taking office, Joe Biden will have to make crucial decisions on how to approach nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang and how to manage the U.S.-South Korea alliance. If he chooses wisely, his administration could prove transformational for the Korean Peninsula. If he errs, he risks being responsible for tragedy.

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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 continues to cycle between tensions and thaws, at times putting Seoul at cross-purposes with Washington.

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.

Trump’s Nuclear Diplomacy

After a contentious beginning to the relationship between Trump and Kim, the two appeared to warm to each other. But 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. How to approach the issue will be one of the central national security questions facing Biden once he takes office.

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

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