On October 27th, North Korea announced through its state news agency that hostilities with Washington could resume if Washington ignores the end-of-year deadline imposed on the Trump administration by Kim Jong Un to come up with a better denuclearization deal for North Korea.
President Trump and the Chairman Kim held their first denuclearization summit in June 2018—the first time a sitting U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader. The outcome of the meeting generated some optimism, with the two leaders signing a vague agreement to “denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”
This was welcome news to the rest of the international community. After North Korea successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and test launched intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland in 2017, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted three resolutions that resulting in the harshest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea.
Eight months after the Singapore meeting, a second Trump-Kim summit was held in Hanoi. This time the summit yielded no agreement. Kim demanded relief from UN sanctions up front in return for watered down commitments to dismantle a portion of North Korea’s nuclear program. The Trump team declined.
The failure to generate tangible results in Hanoi exposed North Korea’s negotiating weakness. Kim is in desperate need of relief from UN sanctions that were imposed on his regime for violating UN Security Resolution 1718, through its nuclear and missile testing. But the Trump administration is unwilling to ease sanctions until North Korea commits to fully verifiable denuclearization. Kim’s counterstrategy to the U.S. dug in position is to soften the U.S. stance through his end-of-year ultimatum and the threat to resort to provocations if his year-end deadline is ignored.
Kim’s strategy is not new—it comes straight from North Korea’s negotiating playbook that dates back to the Armistice negotiations held during the Korean War. It would be useful to review the lessons learned by Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, the senior UN delegate to the Armistice talks, and General Matthew B. Ridgway, the commander of Eighth Army who later took over as Supreme Commander of UN Forces when General MacArthur was relieved from duty.
Admiral Joy and General Ridgway both agreed that maximum pressure should have been maintained throughout the armistice talks. According to Joy, the UNC mistakenly relaxed military offensive operations when armistice talks began: “UNC negotiators…were not in a position to deal from maximum strength, and well did the communists know it. Offensive pressure…should have been increased to the maximum.” Ridgway added, “Two years of trying negotiations in Korea taught us that communists will fulfill agreements only when it is to their clear advantage to do so or when the threat of retaliation is too clear to be ignored.” As for concessions, Joy warned, “Never concede anything to the communists for nothing, merely to make progress. Make the communists pay for your acceptance of their point of view.” Referring to deadlines, Joy opined, “Avoid a ‘hurry-up’ attitude, for such an attitude tends to invoke a communist conclusion that you are pressed for time. If no progress is perceivable in a reasonable period, then terminate the negotiations.”
Despite North Korea’s ultimatums and threats to conduct provocations, the Trump administration should heed the advice of Admiral Joy and General Ridgway and stay the course. This will be difficult as North Korea will assuredly resort to tension-ratcheting tactics, including the real possibility of violent provocations. However, ultimately, the success of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula will be measured by whether North Korea completely dismantles its nuclear program. To increase the probability of successful dismantlement, the Trump administration must maintain, or increase, the current level of pressure on North Korea to keep progress towards denuclearization on track.
George Hutchinson is a PhD student in Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government and a Senior Regional Planner with SecuriFense, Inc. He has a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in Logistics Management from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He is Managing Editor of the International Journal of Korean Studies and a member of the Board of Directors for the International Council on Korean Studies. Previously, George served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, specializing as a Northeast Asia Foreign Area Officer, Logistics Readiness Officer, and Korean linguist. He has published articles in the International Journal of Korean Studies, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and the Air Force Journal of Logistics, as well as reports by the Korea Economic Institute of America and Marine Corps University Press. George’s research interests include U.S. defense and foreign policy as they relate to Northeast Asian and the Korean Peninsula.
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