March 11, 2018 | Policy Brief

President Trump Accepts Kim Jong Un’s Invitation for U.S.-North Korea Summit

On Thursday, President Donald Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a bilateral summit to achieve permanent denuclearization. Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser who just returned from meeting with Kim in Pyongyang, announced at the White House that Kim is “committed to denuclearization” and will stop nuclear and missile testing during the upcoming talks. The Trump administration must approach this opportunity carefully and not relent on its maximum pressure campaign until Kim makes a verifiable commitment to dismantling his nuclear weapons program.

Since the early 1990s, Pyongyang has reached several agreements with the U.S., South Korea, and other regional stakeholders, enabling it to reap economic and humanitarian concessions only to renege later on its obligations. In 2002, the U.S. government learned that North Korea had comprehensively violated the 1994 Agreed Framework by constructing a secret uranium enrichment facility. Later, in October 2006, the North Koreans tested their first nuclear weapon even after they committed in writing to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” in the 2005 Joint Statement.

Pyongyang’s unexpected proposal for summit talks may represent nothing more than an effort to distract both Washington and Seoul from their campaign to intensify sanctions, whose impact is growing. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that China’s enforcement of UN sanctions on seafood and garments has led to the closure of North Korean factories. Over time, the impact of sanctions will grow more severe as North Korea runs low on foreign currency, which could trigger an economic crisis.

Even so, the North Korean leader may approach these upcoming talks believing he has all the negotiating power due to the significant advances in Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The U.S. should quickly disabuse him of that notion. Time is on Washington’s side. As the diplomatic process plays out in the coming months, the U.S. and its partners should continue to enforce existing sanctions as rigorously as possible, including the continued designation of any new violators.

President Trump should also warn Kim that the diplomatic process cannot move forward if North Korea continues to evade sanctions with its deceptive smuggling and shipping practices. Just last month, the Japanese government released images of illegal North Korean ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned goods in the East China Sea.

The Trump administration should approach the upcoming talks as a test of Kim’s commitment to denuclearization. The U.S. should be prepared to walk away if the North Korean definition of denuclearization does not actually entail dismantling its arsenal and production capability. The greatest mistake the U.S. has made in the past is to keep pursuing negotiations when its adversaries’ insincerity has become clear. That kind of desperation has only led to bad deals. If it becomes clear that Kim is not serious about denuclearization, the U.S. and its allies would have all the more reason to continue their maximum pressure campaign, and to make it clear to China, North Korea’s primary financial enabler, that it no longer has an excuse to prop up Kim’s rogue regime.

Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focused on North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.