The North is refusing talks without concessions but the US won’t offer concessions before talks.
North Korea’s year-end deadline for talks with the US is fast approaching, but it seems the sides have reached an impasse.
– With the latest round of talks deadlocked, North Korea has reportedly demanded much more than the US is willing to give to resume the talks
– Entering an election year, the outcome of the talks will play on American voter sentiments, and conversely, voter sentiment could shape the course of US foreign policy
– The likelihood of year-end no-deal and resumption of the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program are higher than ever
Less than a month after the latest round of denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea (DPRK) failed, Pyongyang has again doubled down on its inflammatory tactics. In a bid to force Washington back to the negotiation table on favorable terms, the North resumed missile testing by firing two projectiles into the Sea of Japan at the end of October. These provocations occurred despite Washington’s continued refusal to give in to Pyongyang’s demands that the US relax its sanctions regime ahead of any further talks. Earlier in the year, Kim Jong-un set a year-end deadline on the talks, and North Korean media continues to warn that the country will resume ICBM testing should no progress be made before the deadline. The ICBM in question purportedly has a range capable of striking targets on the US mainland.
Neither leader seems able to back down from their present course of action. If this continues, it will likely lead to a deterioration of relations and the resumption of North Korea’s ICBM testing, which it suspended while talks with the US were underway. Experts have warned that once restarted, there will be little Trump can do to halt them a second time. Nevertheless, alternative options to keep Pyongyang at the table are also unpalatable to Washington — and so the likelihood of talks disintegrating and ICBM testing resuming is quite high.
The October meeting between the two sides ended abruptly when the North Korean delegation broke off talks after just 8 hours and 30 minutes — shorter even than the disastrous February round of talks when the DPRK pulled out of negotiations entirely. The October meeting, which took place in Sweden, was the first such event since Trump and Kim agreed in June to reopen the talks.
Statements released after the summit show an alarming disconnect over objectives and expectations. North Korean officials accused their US counterparts of refusing to bring any substantive proposals to the table and lacking the intention to resolve the multifaceted dispute. In contrast, US negotiators dismissed the DPRK statement as misrepresenting both the content and spirit of the discussions and reaffirmed their commitment to talks.
Swedish authorities were quick to invite both parties back for further talks, to which the US is reported to have responded with enthusiasm. However, the official narrative from Pyongyang categorically rejects further discussions unless “all obstacles that threaten our safety and check our development have been removed completely without a shadow of a doubt”, referring to the ongoing US sanctions regime against the country — the apparent sticking point in every negotiation thus far.
The nature of Pyongyang’s demands has led some experts to believe that Kim will now settle for nothing less than being recognised as a nuclear power under international law, which would effectively legitimise the country’s existing nuclear arsenal. But the unwavering US focus on denuclearisation shows that Trump is not willing to entertain the idea.
North Korea’s timing is not a coincidence — moving into an election year, any foreign policy setback could weaken Trump’s chances at a second term. However, despite the mounting pressure, Trump appears to be unmoved by the DPRK’s actions and has even spun the negotiations as a foreign policy win.
Voters appear to agree with him. A poll conducted earlier in the year, following Pyongyang’s first walk-out, showed that the majority of American voters think that US-DPRK relations are better than or the same as they were at the time of the historic summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore in 2018. A majority of the respondents attribute this stability to Trump himself. This sharply contrasts with the opinions of experts, who view the ongoing discussions with pessimism and continue to warn that all signs point to a no-deal scenario.
The US has sought to restart the stalled negotiations in December, cutting very close to the year-end deadline, but has reportedly been rebuffed for being unable to offer anything new. With neither side backing down, the no-deal scenario seems increasingly likely. Nevertheless, it is difficult to say whether this will have a significant effect on the US elections. Harvard professor Peter D. Putnam has argued that Trump’s base supports him more for his proximity to their fundamental values rather than for his policies. In a toss-up between making progress in the talks and standing up for those values, his base is likely to prefer the latter. Moreover, polling also shows that a majority of voters categorise denuclearisation as the priority on the peninsula, suggesting the backlash would be more severe if Trump were to budge on denuclearisation
THE YEAR-END DEADLINE
Trump effectively now has just one option: stand firm on his current course of action and continue to offer sanctions relief only in exchange for steps towards denuclearisation. The alternative would be to cave in to demands and agree to lift sanctions in exchange for very little upfront in return — an option that would not only be hard to swallow for the president but would also hurt his standing both abroad and possibly at home. Theoretically, Trump could try to convince China and Russia to abide by UN sanctions and halt their exports to the country in order to leverage a better deal, but the ongoing trade war with China and long-term sanctions on Russia make this highly improbable.
Though his domestic opponents have so far been unable to capitalise on the situation (and are unlikely to before the year-end deadline passes), this could change very quickly if Trump is seen to be ‘giving in’ to the North’s demands. Abroad, any perceived capitulation could break trust with Washington’s Asian allies, especially South Korea and Japan, which are already in range of North Korean missiles and so have more to lose from a capital-flush DPRK than one testing ICBMs.
To make matters worse, a breakdown in US-DPRK relations would also come at a time when ties between North Korea and its neighbours have once again cooled. Seoul announced this month that the country will raise military spending by 7% next year and Kim has exchanged harsh words with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, rejecting Abe’s offer for face-to-face talks.
There is little the DPRK can do to back up its threats besides restart ICBM testing. The likelihood that it will do this is high — backed by China and Russia, the country has little to lose from walking away from the table as it continues to circumvent UN sanctions. At the same time, it can gain leverage by expanding its ability to threaten the US directly, sowing fear and doubt amongst the American public. To avoid a restart, US negotiators will have to offer something much more attractive than what they currently have on the table, but finding a pitch that matches the appeal of international legitimisation will be a tall order. In a show of good faith, US-ROK joint exercises scheduled for November have been postponed, but the measure is unlikely to turn heads in Pyongyang.
There is also very little Trump could do to respond to a restart of ICBM testing short of armed conflict. The covert US cyber program aimed at foiling Pyongyang’s missile testing has demonstrated less than optimal effectiveness, while evidence unearthed earlier this year shows that North Korea has supposedly used its own cyber program to great effect by stealing foreign capital to fund its weapons program. It’s unlikely the president will escalate from cyber to kinetic action. Setting aside domestic constraints — starting a new war would be a boon for Trump’s domestic opponents — conflict on the Korean Peninsula would place his allies in jeopardy and risks intervention from China and possibly Russia on the side of the North.
All in all, expert predictions that these talks will end with no constructive outcome appear likely to become a reality, and a way to stave off a collapse of the talks is not immediately evident. If all holds constant, the new decade will open with the same incendiary rhetoric and escalating tensions last seen in early 2018.