Visions of a Nobel Peace Prize can be very seductive. Even Jimmy Carter admitted that Donald Trump would deserve the prize if he brought peace to the Korean Peninsula. The same experts who said he might start a nuclear war at any moment would have to admit that Trump did what they never could.
When Trump cancelled his June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un, he put the national interest ahead of a clear opportunity for personal vindication. Even if no deal were made, the first meeting between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader would have been a historic occasion.
No one sets out to make bad deals, but it's very hard to walk away from the negotiating table once you've raised expectations and invested your reputation in the outcome.
Trump was already talking up the prospects of a breakthrough at the summit. “It's never been taken this far. There's never been a relationship like this,” Trump said when he welcomed three American hostages home from North Korea, “I think this will be a very big success.”
Despite this hope, the president and his national security team apparently kept their focus on the clear benchmark they had set for what constitutes a good deal: the “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced.
On top of that, the process would have to be rapid, so North Korea couldn't cash in on relief from U.S. sanctions while dragging its feet on denuclearization, then walk away from the deal.
When North Korea backed away from the promise of denuclearization, even using harsh language to criticize administration officials, Trump was right to pull the plug. Though there is talk that dialogue between the two parties has already reopened, Kim is unlikely to consider full denuclearization until he faces much tougher measures.
That means it's now time for the next stage of the policy known asmaximum pressure, whose impact was one important reason that Kim felt the need to propose a summit, release American hostages, and pause his missile test program.
Despite the name, the pressure applied so far is nowhere close to the maximum, but it has been a dramatic departure from the passivity of the Obama administration. In 16 months, this administration has sanctioned more North Korean entities that its predecessor did in a full eight years.
One major target for additional pressure is the North Korean shipping sector. Earlier this year, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned dozens of North Korea-linked vessels and shipping firms, and there are plenty more targets. To really turn up the heat, the U.S. and its allies should begin mandatory inspections of North Korea-linked vessels to ensure they aren't violating sanctions.
Another revenue stream to target is the income of an estimated 100,000 North Korean laborers sent overseas to generate hard currency for the regime while working in conditions that might be described as industrial slavery.
The State Department estimates this abusive practice generates hundreds of millions of dollars per year for the regime. Congress has already passed a law imposing mandatory sanctions on foreign employers complicit in this abuse, but the administration hasn't implemented the measure yet. That needs to change.
Next, the White House also needs to make it clear to China that it cannot get away with the quiet facilitation of North Korea's illegal trade, as it did for years. Above all, Treasury should impose stiff fines on any Chinese banks that process transactions for sanctioned North Korean entities or the front companies they rely on.
While Beijing was glad to turn a blind eye to such practices for as long as the U.S. remained passive, its financial sector has far more to lose from being cut off from the U.S. market than from serving Pyongyang's interests.
While shuttered factories and power shortages impose tangible costs on the Kim regime, the regime also dreads having a spotlight cast on its abhorrent human rights record. The next step on that front is for the UN Security Council to refer the regime to the International Criminal Court or to a special tribunal, as a UN commission recommended in 2014.
This move will have the added benefit of reinforcing U.S. pressure on foreign capitals to downgrade their diplomatic and commercial relations with North Korea, which 20 nations have already done.
There are many other gaps and loopholes to plug in both the U.S. and UN sanctions regime. The White House should keep cranking up the pressure until Pyongyang recognizes that its nuclear weapons are a liability, not a insurance policy. Then it will be time for a summit.
Commentary by David Adesnik, the Director of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter@adesnik .
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.