January 31, 2019 |

Midterm Assessment: North Korea

January 31, 2019

Midterm Assessment: North Korea

Current Policy

After threatening Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” and imposing unprecedented sanctions on North Korea, President Trump pivoted in 2018 to a policy of engagement with Kim, culminating in the first-ever summit between U.S. and North Korean leaders, held in Singapore this past June. Since the summit, U.S. diplomats have worked to translate the good will between Trump and Kim into meaningful steps toward denuclearization, while guarding against North Korean efforts to reap the benefits of engagement while offering only rhetorical concessions.

On June 30, 2017, President Trump met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and agreed to “fully implement existing sanctions and impose new measures designed to apply maximum pressure” on North Korea in order to compel Pyongyang to negotiate its “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”1

The tools for implementing this policy included the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 and Executive Order 13810, which made it possible to sanction new targets with connections to illicit finance, cyberattacks, and human rights violations. In the face of over 40 ballistic missile and nuclear tests – including three ICBM tests possibly capable of striking the U.S. mainland – as well as the successful detonation of a thermonuclear device, the Trump administration responded with multiple UN Security Council resolutions to reinforce the existing multilateral sanctions regime. In the face of such pressure, and buttressed by a vastly improved nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, North Korea initiated a process of diplomatic outreach to its southern neighbor, which soon led to the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. After the Olympics, Kim quickly arranged for his first summit meetings with the presidents of China and South Korea, before extending a surprise invitation in March to President Trump.

At the June 12 summit in Singapore, Trump and Kim displayed remarkable warmth toward each other, a marked change from the mutually hostile insults of 2017. In a joint statement with Trump, Kim committed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” yet their statement neither provided a timeline for denuclearization nor steps toward North Korea’s disarmament.2 Surprising the Pentagon, President Trump also suspended exercises with the South Korean military, which he described as both very expensive and needlessly provocative. In addition, the president announced that Kim was already dismantling a ballistic missile engine test site.

A second Trump-Kim summit is now on the horizon, following the exchange of “love letters” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s October trip to Pyongyang.3 The administration cancelled a previous trip Pompeo had planned for August, since there had not been “sufficient progress” toward denuclearization. In advance of the first Trump-Kim summit, Pyongyang invited journalists to observe the demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. However, the credibility of this action is doubtful considering some reports suggested that prior nuclear tests destroyed this facility.4 Pyongyang has characterized the U.S. objective of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization as a “unilateral and gangster-like” demand that runs “counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks.”5

Military parade in North Korea.


It is difficult to know whether the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign brought North Korea to the negotiating table, just as it remains uncertain whether Kim has made a strategic choice to abandon his nuclear program, or if the purpose of North Korean diplomacy is to protect its arsenal while dismantling the U.S. and UN sanctions regime.

There is no question that the Trump administration found significant targets for North Korea sanctions. It issued 156 Treasury designations in just its first 16 months, whereas the Obama administration issued only 154 designations in its eight-year tenure – and half of those came in 2016 in response to congressional pressure. Beyond this quantitative increase, the administration consistently targeted non-North Korean facilitators of Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion schemes, including Chinese and Russians.6

While pressure from sanctions affected North Korea’s bottom line, the highly visible progress of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs may have given it the necessary confidence to negotiate. In late 2017, after testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States, the North Korean government announced that it had “completed its state nuclear force.”7

The Trump administration had yet to fully implement its maximum pressure campaign when Kim Jong Un turned to engagement.

The Trump administration had yet to fully implement its maximum pressure campaign when Kim Jong Un turned to engagement. For example, it made only limited efforts to restrain Chinese financial institutions playing a critical role in North Korean sanctions evasion.8 Nor did the administration fully utilize the UN Panel of Experts’ reports on North Korean sanctions evasion, which identified a comprehensive list of potential targets. Most of them remain unsanctioned.9 Even so, the administration’s approach represented a dramatic reversal of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy.

The president often emphasizes that, on his watch, North Korea has stopped testing its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Yet reducing the threat to the U.S. and its allies will require Kim to dismantle his weapons, not just pause their development. So far, North Korea’s half-hearted concessions indicate that Pyongyang is not yet willing to act on its denuclearization pledge. Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies divulged North Korea’s ongoing production and proliferation activity.10 Nor has the U.S. pressed very hard for key concessions such as a full declaration of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, a program for verification, or a timeline for dismantlement.

To its credit, Washington continues to keep all sanctions enforced. However, following the Singapore summit, certain states, primarily China and Russia, loosened sanctions enforcement to undermine maximum pressure.11 In response, Washington designated additional Russian, Chinese, and other non-North Korean sanctions evaders.

The Trump administration has also worked to hold Pyongyang accountable for its continuing cyberattacks,12 although it could do much more. In September 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted a North Korean computer programmer, Pak Jin Hyok, for contributing to several cyberattacks. The U.S. Treasury followed suit by sanctioning Pak and a North Korean company.

Another looming challenge is managing the U.S. alliance with South Korea, since Seoul’s enthusiasm for reconciliation is leading it to offer additional concessions to Pyongyang without reciprocal moves toward denuclearization. In September 2018, President Moon traveled to North Korea for a third summit where he and Kim committed to greater economic cooperation. Both countries want to move quickly toward a peace declaration and lifting of sanctions. South Korea’s foreign minister even suggested Seoul should lift unilateral sanctions that it imposed after a North Korean torpedo sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, in 2010. In response, President Trump berated Seoul and suggested it could not make a decision “without our approval.”13 Sustaining coordination between Washington and Seoul will be critical to maintaining pressure on Pyongyang. The establishment of a strategy-working group in November should improve coordination.14

South Korea holds anti-terror exercise. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)


  1. Remain focused on the essential goal of the final and fully verified dismantlement (FFVD) of North Korea’s nuclear capability. The president’s unconventional, experimental, top-down diplomacy has created unique opportunities, but the question is whether it can deliver lasting results.
  2. Establish a negotiating process that requires substantive action towards denuclearization. Pyongyang has not participated in working-level talks. The newly appointed special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, should have the authority to establish a negotiating process that would test Kim Jong Un’s sincerity by requiring substantive and verifiable action toward denuclearization. The recent establishment of a U.S.-South Korea working group will be essential in allowing Biegun and his South Korean counterparts to lay the groundwork and balance President Trump’s more unorthodox diplomatic efforts. This approach is preferable to seeking an elusive “grand bargain” that resolves all issues at once, but fails to establish the procedures necessary for sustainable progress.
  3. Enforce sanctions until North Korea delivers on its pledge to denuclearize. The simultaneous pursuit of talks and punishment of sanctions violators will show that the U.S. is intent on achieving a non-nuclear North Korea through peaceful means. Washington should investigate and sanction Chinese banks that process North Korean transactions through the U.S. financial system. The Trump administration should continue to target the North Korean shipping sector and the Chinese and Russian enablers that help it to evade import and export controls. The UN Panel of Experts has already identified many likely perpetrators.
  4. Ensure that negotiations address the Kim family regime’s abhorrent human rights violations, offensive cyber program, conventional military capability, and non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Leaving these issues unaddressed obstructs the establishment of genuine peace and trust between the two Koreas. More importantly, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 legally obligates the administration to address these other non-nuclear issues when dealing with North Korea.
  5. Make clear that Trump will walk away from the table and implement a maximum pressure “2.0” campaign if sufficient progress is not made toward denuclearization. Trump should privately tell Kim (and Moon) that if negotiations fail, the U.S. will not only ramp up sanctions pressure, but also will harden the U.S.-South Korean combined defense to ensure that North Korea will be quickly and decisively defeated if it chooses to take military action.

South Korean Navy vessels taking part in a drill off the east coast on September 4, 2017 in South Korea. The exercise took place two days after a North Korean nuclear test, which was condemned by world leaders. (Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty Images)


North Korea