The Singapore debacle was surprising, given what had been happening in U.S.-North Korea relations since Trump’s inauguration. In 2017, the North Koreans successfully tested brand-new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that they said were capable of hitting the continental United States, and the Trump administration reacted to this threat with unprecedented toughness. The key figures in the administration, including the president himself, began to hint that, unless North Korea agrees to surrender its entire nuclear program, the United States might use force — and many observers believed these threats to be real. Simultaneously, China shifted from its long-held ambivalence on North Korea: Starting in the summer of 2017, Beijing, acting in close coordination with Washington, not only voted in support of the toughest-ever United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang but also worked hard to implement them.
For a while, it looked as if administration policy was succeeding beyond its wildest expectations. Facing the dual threat of military operation and suffocating sanctions, Kim initiated a chain of unilateral concessions, asking for little in return. North Korea introduced a moratorium on further nuclear tests and missile launches, released American detainees, blew up some tunnels at a nuclear test site and expressed its commitment to eventual denuclearization.
Yet in Singapore, inexplicably, all this momentum was lost. The North Korean side did not make more concessions, and even the demand for CVID (the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea), for years the cornerstone of U.S. policy, was quietly dropped. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said that there was no timeline for denuclearization, he confirmed that we should expect prolonged talks, which, as previous experience teaches us, are likely to yield little, if any, results. We have seen them many times before, after all.
Even now, however, diplomacy still has an important tool at its disposal: the very same economic sanctions introduced by the United Nations, which remain in place.
North Korean leaders believe that their nuclear program is the only guarantee of their political and even physical survival, but they still need economic growth. No sooner than he was in power, Kim launched market-oriented economic reforms that are very similar to what the Chinese did in the 1980s. And this policy, predictably, has been working: In recent years, the North Korean economy has been growing fast. If this growth is slowed down or reversed by the current tough sanctions, it will annoy people, and might create serious domestic problems for Kim.
It is true that China is reverting to a more favorable attitude to North Korea — a rather predictable reaction considering its trade war with the United States. It is conceivable that China will start to turn a blind eye to lax sanctions enforcement. From Pyongyang’s point of view, however, trade with China is not enough. The North Koreans also want assistance from and trade with South Korea, whose current government is eager to deal with Pyongyang but cannot afford to infringe on the U.N. sanctions regime.
So it is still possible for the United States to trade partial, step-by-step relaxation of the U.N. sanctions for meaningful North Korean concessions on the nuclear issue.
Of course, one should be realistic: CVID, or some other form of complete denuclearization, is (and has always been) a pipe dream. The North Korean leaders would rather risk another famine or war than accept denuclearization, which they see as tantamount to their own death sentence. (Remember what happened to Moammar Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear weapon program? They remember his fate very well in Pyongyang.) The North Koreans are, however, willing to consider arms-reduction measures if the incentives are right. It is possible that North Korean leaders will agree to surrender some fissile material, to dismantle some nuclear and missile production facilities, and to let international inspectors check their known nuclear and missile sites — as long as they are rewarded by piecemeal reduction of the U.N. sanctions.
Even so, however, these measures will not mean denuclearization. Nobody knows how much fissile material North Korea has, and the regime has demonstrated a remarkable ability to hide what it wants to hide. Still, such measures would significantly reduce the level of the North Korean nuclear threat. And it is vital for the West to press forward immediately, so as not to lose any time. If it fails to do this, the alternative is clear: North Korea will continue to expand its nuclear and ICBM programs.