One year after the Singapore summit, the Trump administration’s diplomatic process with North Korea has hit a stalemate with no clear path toward a resolution. Now the goal seems to just be to keep the process alive, and the only working channel is between Kim Jong Un and President Trump. But a process that exists primarily to perpetuate its own existence is not long for this world.
Trump revealed this week that he had received another “beautiful letter” from Kim, but the letter reportedly had no substantive details about how Washington and Pyongyang might salvage the nuclear negotiations, which have been almost completely dormant since the failed Hanoi summit in February. According to several officials and diplomatic sources, North Korean officials have gone dark on almost all previously functioning channels.
Kim’s negotiating team may not be dead, as previously reported, but they aren’t picking up the phone. There were two “track two” conferences this month — one in Mongolia and one in Hong Kong — but the North Korean officials expected to attend failed to show.
Kim’s strategy seems clear. He is appealing directly to Trump, sending him sweet but vague letters, even bashing Joe Biden . Trump, who has a political incentive to keep the diplomacy going, is returning Kim’s affection publicly. Officials said Trump is simply trying to keep the door open, to give his team time and space to make a deal.
The problem is that Kim failed to learn the two lessons from Hanoi. First, the negotiations can make progress only at the lower working level. Second, Trump is not actually as desperate for a deal as people think, officials said. That means the deal he pitched to Kim in Vietnam — full denuclearization for economic normalization — is about as good as it’s going to get.
“The summits between Kim and Trump symbolized a major breakthrough in relations, but they also revealed the limits of personality-driven diplomacy when it’s not backed up by working-level talks held on a regular basis,” the Carnegie Endowment’s Suzanne DiMaggio wrote Thursday.
National security adviser John Bolton said this week that Trump was open to a third summit. “Kim Jong Un holds the key,” he said. “We are ready when they are, so it’s any time that they want to schedule it.”
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters Wednesday the diplomats are ready to negotiate at the working level as well, but the core demand is not going to change. “We’re looking for a complete denuclearization,” she said.
Inside the administration, the current debate is over how to manage this stalemate. Some officials want to increase pressure on North Korea, which risks ending the diplomatic process. For example, when Kim shot off a bunch of short-range missiles and other rockets last month, National Security Council officials advocated bringing the issue before the U.N. Security Council, multiple administration officials told me.
State Department officials advised Trump not to overreact, fearing that would play into Kim’s hands and cause a split between the United States and China, Russia and South Korea. By showing more restraint, they argued, the international sanctions coalition could be better maintained. Trump sided with the latter camp.
Officials told me that after Trump played down the missile launches publicly, the intelligence showed that the North Korean regime was angry. That was interpreted to mean Kim’s plan to spark a retaliatory provocation was foiled.
Officials are also split on how strongly to confront Chinese and Russian shortcomings in enforcement. Trump directly told Vladimir Putin that Russia must follow through on its commitment to enforce sanctions, officials said. In Singapore earlier this month, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan gave a “gift” to China’s national defense minister, Wei Fenghe: a collection of photos of North Korean sanctions-busting ship-to-ship oil transfers inside China’s territorial waters.
Trump has decided that there should be no new sanctions on North Korea for now. But if Beijing and Moscow don’t tighten enforcement, calls will grow to go after their companies under the justification of enforcing existing sanctions.
For Trump, there is no political upside to ending negotiations with North Korea. As long as he can say diplomacy continues and North Korean provocations remain under a certain threshold, the president has a clear interest in maintaining the stalemate and maybe having one more summit before the election.
The problem is that the status quo is certain to change. Sanctions weaken over time. Kim may eventually resort to a more serious provocation, such as a nuclear test. He continues to build nuclear weapons and advance his missile programs. The risk of proliferation is growing.
If there is still some hope of making a deal, Trump can justify keeping the North Korean negotiations alive despite no progress and dim prospects. But the talks can’t stay on life support forever. At some point, it will be necessary to pull the plug. Let’s hope Team Trump has a strategy for what happens next.