A summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un fell apart this Wednesday, once again resulting in no agreement over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Both leaders face political pressure to maintain a hardline stance and have refused to budge in negotiations. While Trump remains optimistic about talks going forward, he must make major changes to his diplomatic strategy to secure North Korea’s denuclearization.
During negotiations, North Korea called for the complete removal of sanctions, a concession Trump was willing to make only in exchange for total disarmament. Jong-un refused to do this, instead offering to dismantle its main nuclear facility only. North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho stated that “Given the current level of trust between North Korea and the United States, this was the maximum step for denuclearization we could offer.” Despite this impasse, both sides remained optimistic about prospects moving forward. While Trump states that the meeting’s abrupt end was “very friendly,” the North Korean Central News agency reports that the two leaders agreed to “keep in close touch with each other.”
North Korea has been a long-time opponent to the denuclearization regime. The country has operated a nuclear program for decades and claims to have an arsenal of nuclear warheads and other long-range weaponry. More worryingly, the North’s foreign ministry has threatened to use these weapons against other countries, notably warning the United States that it would launch a nuclear strike should America attempt to oust Kim as leader. Trump in turn threatened Kim with his country’s “larger” nuclear arsenal. Despite tension, the two leaders did engage in historic talks in June of 2018. While North Korea has since continued to develop long-range weaponry, the country did agree to a halt on its weapons testing during peace talks.
However, the promise of continued negotiations does offer some reassurance of movement towards denuclearization. The United States previously maintained a hostile stance towards North Korea, with President George W. Bush putting the country on the “axis of evil.” Trump’s negotiations have also brought moderate success, with North Korea agreeing to place a freeze on weapons testings during the peace talks. However, North Korea still has an arsenal and no incentive to reduce it.
Trump should be more willing to discuss incremental rather than absolute changes to current policies. This would mean partial disarmament in exchange for partial lifting of sanctions, with the eventual goal of complete denuclearization. However, given that neither leader seems willing to give up ground, it may fall to a third party to intervene. This would likely bee South Korea, who can and should use its continually growing ties with the North to induce greater cooperation. For example, South Korea could offer greater economic support to ease the burden of sanctions.
While leaders may fear that concessions would initially cause them to appear weak, an actual agreement would do more to bolster each leader’s credibility than a series of failed negotiations. Hopefully, as talks continue, the two may develop the “level of trust” needed to take more substantial steps towards denuclearization. Doing so will be crucial in lowering the risk of nuclear conflict.
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