Kim Jong Un warned last week that the U.S. has until the end of this year make a “bold decision” demonstrating a “true willingness to improve its relations with the DPRK” if it wants a third U.S.-North Korea summit. Kim’s demand will test whether the U.S. and South Korea have learned from past mistakes, especially the danger of making concessions just to keep diplomacy alive.
Despite Kim’s accusation that current U.S. policy is “foolish and dangerous,” President Trump tweeted that “a third summit would be good” since both sides now understand each other. Similarly, South Korean President Moon Jae-in responded on Monday to Kim’s speech by urging, “Now is the time to make preparations and push for South-North summit talks in earnest.”
Additionally, Moon’s recent appointment of Kim Yeon-chul as unification minister raises concerns about how much Seoul is willing to give up to prolong talks with the North. The new minister has advocated for resuming inter-Korean economic projects, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Kumgang Mountain Resort, to foster trust and accelerate the peace process.
The history of negotiations with North Korea shows that such incentives do not work. Numerous rounds of bilateral and multilateral negotiations all saw Pyongyang reap financial or humanitarian benefits, only to cheat on the resulting agreements. Concessions may prolong diplomacy but have not led North Korea to denuclearize.
The failed Hanoi summit in February confirmed that Kim seeks significant sanctions relief without reciprocating. Kim’s reluctance to negotiate a clear roadmap leading to Pyongyang’s verifiable denuclearization confirms these suspicions.
Neither Washington nor Seoul can afford to repeat past failures of trying to break a deadlock in negotiations by rewarding Kim for his intransigence. Prolonging top-down negotiations will be futile considering Kim has not made the strategic choice to denuclearize. A third summit should happen not when the U.S. adopts a more flexible attitude, but rather when North Korea does.
Instead, the administration should consider ramping up pressure on Kim for his destabilizing nuclear ambitions. The administration’s original “maximum pressure” campaign, which combined economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and vigorous deterrence, should serve as a template. Yet well before the pressure reached a maximum, Kim undercut this effort by entangling Washington and Seoul in a fruitless diplomatic process.
While the U.S. and North Korea talk, Russia, China, and other UN member states continue to support Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion schemes. Despite such evidence, President Trump insists that the current sanctions regime is adequate. On the contrary, an enhanced maximum pressure campaign is essential to altering Kim’s strategic calculus so there can be productive and fruitful negotiations.
Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and the Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, @FDD_CMPP, and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.