February 12, 2019

Negotiating With North Korea

How Will This End?

Executive Summary

After a year of historic summits and negotiations, North Korea’s future remains mired in uncertainty. Kim Jong Un, in the lead-up his second summit with President Trump, has an opportunity to cast aside his country’s pariah status and jump headlong into economic development, but the diplomatic window is narrowing. Protracted stalemate may be unavoidable, but over the course of the next year or two the negotiating process is likely to be binary and head in one of two directions: Either sufficient progress is made to justify continuing the recent rapprochement, or frustrations over the lack of progress will effectively terminate the United States’ diplomatic opening with the Kim regime.

Although immediate pathways are uncertain, this should not preclude disciplined thinking about the United States’ long-term goals and interests on the Korean Peninsula and how they interact with the priorities of other key players, including South Korea as well as North Korea and their northern neighbor: China. This report examines the desired “end states” of each of these actors in order to situate the United States’ aspirations within the complex geopolitical realities of the region. The recommendations offered in this report are intended not only to guide policymakers through present uncertainty, but also to bring greater clarity, realism, and creativity to the United States’ long game on the peninsula beyond the narrow issue of North Korea’s denuclearization.

In 2018, Kim embarked on a bid to transform North Korea’s relations with the United States, South Korea, and other regional powers. Even as Kim retains his nuclear weapons arsenal, inter-Korean rapprochement is progressing at a pace the world has not seen for more than a decade and few could have anticipated in 2017. Since April 2018, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in government has established a joint North-South liaison office in Kaesong; abandoned guard posts within and designated “no-fly” zones above the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); and reopened an inter-Korean railway to conduct a joint survey of North Korea’s antiquated railway tracks. Against the backdrop of this quickly shifting geopolitical terrain, the United States’ role in inter-Korean rapprochement has largely been one of a decelerator — that is, to ensure that the pace of concessions to North Korea does not outpace steps that it takes, or fails to take, toward dismantlement.

As the United States engages North Korea beyond fanfare and summitry, it must maintain unwavering discipline in advancing its interests amid the peace processes that are unfolding on the Korean Peninsula. First and foremost, the U.S. national interest centers on minimizing the threat that North Korean weapons of mass destruction and intercontinental ballistic missiles – and the proliferation of these weapons – pose to the U.S. homeland, U.S. forces, and regional allies. Corollary interests include preventing the large-scale use of North Korean conventional weaponry against the Republic of Korea (ROK); maintaining the credibility of U.S. alliance commitments in the Asia- and Indo-Pacific region; and ultimately, realizing a peaceful conclusion to the Korean War in a way that promotes U.S. interests and values in postwar Northeast Asia.

But arguably, America’s only prospect for achieving its strategic-military goals vis-à-vis North Korea is to address the yawning trust deficit with Pyongyang and to simultaneously seek to create a new relationship between the two Koreas. Maintaining a tight choreography between the two Koreas and the United States and North Korea is essential to pursuing the narrow path toward denuclearization and peace.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) watch the gymnastic and artistic performance at the May Day Stadium on September 19, 2018, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim and Moon met for the Inter-Korean summit and discussed ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. (Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)

Washington and Seoul remain synchronized on first-order interests, forswearing major economic relief until Pyongyang commits to a meaningful plan of action for denuclearization. But the two allies could easily diverge on what constitutes sufficient progress to warrant effectively rewarding the Kim regime. In advance of negotiations that lie ahead, officials at the highest levels in Washington and Seoul should address gaps in their definitions of success and desired outcomes regarding the dual-track peace and denuclearization processes. Each may need to make compromises to ensure North Korea does not successfully unravel the seams of alliance solidarity. Should diplomacy succeed and make rapid headway, the United States and South Korea will want to be prepared to revamp the U.S.-ROK alliance for managing contingencies and emerging threats beyond the scope of the peninsula.

Planning for failure – for the potential shocks that would accompany a breakdown in negotiations with North Korea – is just as critical as planning for success. Failure can emerge in manifold ways, ranging from the fundamental issue of Kim’s foot-dragging or cheating on denuclearization steps while reaping economic benefits to a crisis-induced interruption to renewed provocations and even the use of force. The United States must be prepared to work with South Korea and other countries to dial up economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang if it does not move beyond moratoriums on missile and nuclear tests and largely symbolic gestures around secondary elements of its weapons programs. Additionally, because North Korea could break the relative peace with a sudden show of force, it is critical that the U.S.-ROK alliance demonstrate continued vigilance and readiness to deter such a brazen turn of fortune. Finally, because North Korea may use this period of diplomacy to strengthen its nuclear and missile programs while simultaneously trying to weaken the sanctions arrayed against it, the United States should be prepared to revert to a robust policy of deterrence and containment.

The stakes of U.S. diplomacy with the Kim regime far transcend the scope of the Korean Peninsula. Outcomes of diplomacy will be critically determinative of the regional balance of power and the security architecture of Northeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

The stakes of U.S. diplomacy with the Kim regime extend far beyond the scope of the Korean Peninsula. Outcomes of diplomacy will be critically determinative of the regional balance of power and the security architecture of Northeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region. In this paper, we begin with an assessment of the current trajectory of U.S. engagement with North Korea. Section one offers an analysis of the desired end states of North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States and how these concepts inform each of the key players’ strategies. Based on this stakeholder analysis, the second section sets out a more realistic set of goals and projections for negotiations with Pyongyang in the next two years – bookended by arms control on one end of the spectrum and arms reduction on the other. Finally, section three, concludes with recommendations for the United States that will not only sustain diplomatic momentum in the near- to medium-term future but also enhance readiness and interoperability with South Korea and Japan in the event of a diplomatic breakdown.

Summary of Recommendations

In 2019, the United States and its allies must simultaneously prepare for two broad contingencies: first, a breakthrough denoted by Pyongyang undertaking significant steps toward dismantling its nuclear capabilities; and second, failure in the form of a protracted impasse or an abrupt, crisis-induced short-circuiting of negotiations. With a clear understanding of how the interests and aspirational end states of major stakeholders overlap, converge, or clash, the United States can navigate near-term uncertainty through risk mitigation measures while also incrementally adjusting its relationships with allies to promote its long-term interests in a changing Northeast Asia.

The first tranche of recommendations is intended to guide U.S. policymakers in preparation for a potential breakthrough with North Korea.

Measure progress by evaluating North Korean actions against empirical criteria for denuclearization and seek international support to backstop a robust verification process.

  • Secure at least a partial material declaration, ideally one that includes the numbers and types of nuclear weapons in North Korea’s arsenal and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – but with the operating assumption that this declaration will be incomplete and if necessary, assembled in segments over the next year or two.
  • Negotiate a moratorium on North Korea’s production of all weapons-grade fissile material.
  • Test North Korea’s willingness to work with international inspectors, beginning with expert visits to test sites based on cooperation between the United States and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.
  • Conduct, in conjunction with South Korea, basic threat measurements based on official statements from North Korea’s Politburo, speeches, and state newspaper editorials.
  • Keep Congress fully apprised of North Korea’s actions, statements, and perceived intentions, as a crucial way to prevent an executive-legislative-branch breakdown in the potential implementation of any accord.

Meet significant denuclearization actions, made in good faith, with steps designed to underscore the potential for transformed relations between the United States and North Korea and with appropriately sequenced and scoped inducements.

  • Maintain direct, regular bilateral diplomacy with North Korea and use bilateral or occasional trilateral forums to advance diplomatic objectives with South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia.
  • Accept a partial deal as a next step, provided that it delivers major elements of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, above and beyond inspections of the Punggye-ri nuclear and Tongchang-ri ICBM test sites and even the closing of fissile material production at Yongbyon. The additional steps might include a verifiable ban on all fissile material production or the destruction of longrange transporter erector launchers or nuclear warheads.
  • Be prepared to loosen restrictions on some investments to help foster inter-Korean ties, including with respect to railroad projects and tourist and economic zones, but in proportion to verifiable North Korean actions, not words, about denuclearization.
  • Consider placing funds from sanctions relief and potential investments into an escrow fund that can only be accessed after substantial denuclearization steps are taken.
  • Accede to a political declaration as a good-faith intention to commence with replacing the 1953 armistice – but only after Pyongyang agrees to a firm set of steps and timetable for substantive denuclearization steps that can be verified.

Launch a discussion with South Korea on the future raison d’être and the disposition of the alliance, both as it pertains to the peninsula and the broader Asia-Pacific region, should peace processes progress

  • Clarify U.S. goals for a future Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asian regional architecture, and then for South Korea and Japan, as well as China and Russia, based on their aspirational plans and potential red lines.
  • Promote serious conventional arms control talks, led by South Korea, that tackle North Korea’s numerical advantages in conventional forces, beginning with entrenched artillery, cannons, and rocket launchers in the Kaesong Heights.
  • Support the Moon administration’s economic and diplomatic engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under its marquee “New Southern Policy” as an initiative complementary to the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, and identify areas for cooperation.
  • Continue to articulate for North Korea a vision of what a nuclear-free future can look like, including the lifting of U.N. Security Council sanctions, bilateral aid, infrastructure development, and investments from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

Simultaneously, in preparation for a continuation of the current impasse or an abrupt breakdown of negotiations, the United States and its allies must ensure that their coercive diplomatic, economic, and military toolkit remains within easy reach.

Prepare to incrementally dial up and dial down economic, diplomatic, and military instruments of coercion without risking an all-out conflict spiral.

  • Remain open to alternative interpretations regarding the degree of harmony or internecine friction within Pyongyang, with the aim of strengthening Kim’s ability and willingness to deliver on the promise of denuclearization.
  • Maintain as much economic pressure, as well as diplomatic and political pressure (e.g., over human rights), as possible on North Korea until it accepts a substantive plan for denuclearization.
  • Determine the point at which the United States should walk away from negotiations with Kim – e.g., should he end the moratorium on missile or nuclear launches.
  • Engage in risk mitigation exercises in conjunction with South Korea and Japan in the event that talks languish or fail.
  • Ensure a strategy that prepares for neither peace nor war, with a plan for dialing up comprehensive economic and diplomatic pressure as well as stepping up military deterrence and defense.

Find creative ways to maintain readiness and deterrence in preparation for potential crises, even as confidence-building measures progress and other calls for reducing military power grow more pronounced (“control the controllables”).

  • Ensure that modifications to military exercises preserve sufficient deterrence should talks fail abruptly.
  • Prepare to announce and reinstate Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Vigilant Ace combined military exercises with South Korea should Pyongyang resume a provocative posture of testing weapons, including high-tech tactical weapons aimed at Seoul.
  • Bolster U.S.-Japan military readiness through both exercises and further steps for improving layered missile defense.
  • Step up joint cyber offense and defense capabilities, in conjunction with South Korea and Japan, to thwart North Korea’s use of cyber warfare.
  • Ensure a strategy that prepares for neither peace nor war, with a plan for dialing up comprehensive economic and diplomatic pressure as well as stepping up military deterrence and defense.

Given the contending major power interests at play, the next two years represent a highly mutable phase of diplomacy that will serve as a prelude to a significant breakthrough, devolve into failure once again, or settle into some in-between dynamic equilibrium. Even as diplomacy proceeds in fits and starts during this interim phase, there is an urgent need for disciplined thinking about where this process is headed over time. Structurally, the mere act of engaging North Korea in high-level diplomacy could be construed in Pyongyang as an indication that the political will of its key adversaries has been broken. At the twilight of the Korean War, this is at least one of the main reasons armistice talks dragged on for two costly years after the United States opted to seek a cease-fire on the basis of the status quo ante in July 1951. In the absence of long-range assessments, U.S. negotiators today risk reliving General Matthew Ridgway’s reflection at the start of cease-fire talks with North Korea, that “at the very start we [the United States] made a concession that we early had cause to regret.”

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  1. Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korean Leader Urges ‘Bold Decisions’ on North’s Denuclearization,” The New York Times, September 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/world/asia/trump-kim-jong-un-summit.html.
  2. "Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain,” NCNK.org, https://www.ncnk.org/sites/def...
  3. Ibid.
  4. Darren Whiteside, “South Korea’s Moon unveils new focus on Southeast Asia,” Reuters, November 9, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-southkorea/south-koreas-moon-unveils-new-focus-on-southeastasia-idUSKBN1D90OC.
  5. Chuck Downs, Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1999).


  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...

  • Kristine Lee

    Former Associate Fellow

    Kristine Lee is a former Associate Fellow with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where she focuses on U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, ...

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