January 28, 2019 | Policy Brief

Hold the Line on North Korean Sanctions

January 28, 2019 | Policy Brief

Hold the Line on North Korean Sanctions

National Security Advisor John Bolton on Friday told the Washington Times, “What we need from North Korea is a significant sign of a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons and it is when we get that denuclearization that the President can begin to take the sanctions off.” NK News, a North Korea-focused news site, immediately reported that Bolton appeared to be softening the U.S. position ahead of the second Trump-Kim summit. The publication likely misinterpreted Bolton’s words, but regardless, this is not the time to lift sanctions or offer concessions.

Bolton’s statement is certainly open to multiple interpretations. Asking North Korea to provide just a “sign of a strategic decision” to disarm may be viewed as setting the bar significantly lower than the previous U.S. demand for final, fully verifiable denuclearization. A more straightforward interpretation of Bolton’s statement is that denuclearization still comes first.

Since the first Trump-Kim summit last June in Singapore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has consistently made clear that North Korea will not receive sanctions relief until it dismantles its nuclear program. Even South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who generally favors more rapid engagement and sanctions waivers, has said that sanctions will remain until “the denuclearization process reaches a point of no return.” Although this position appears more lenient, it still requires substantive action by the North that leads to an irreversible stage of denuclearization.

While North Korea made no clear moves to dismantle its nuclear weapons program following the Singapore summit, there were, until January 2019, no working level negotiations, which are necessary to move the process forward. Kim has been reluctant to allow those talks, and instead continued to make demands for a declaration of the end of the war and sanctions relief.

By standing firm, the administration avoided making the same mistake its predecessors made for decades, when Washington gave concessions to the North in exchange for promises but no action. North Korea’s broken pledges marked its tried-and-true method of getting something for nothing, and always persuading the U.S. to make the first move.

This sustained maximum pressure by the U.S. has begun to bear fruit, as it appears that Kim is willing to allow working level negotiations. It is far too early to judge the potential for success. But the U.S. is now in a stronger negotiating position, because it has not made concessions on lifting sanctions and may be on the brink of breaking the regime’s negotiating pattern.

The U.S. must hold the line on sanctions and concessions at least until there is substantive and verifiable progress toward dismantlement. At a minimum, this should be the full declaration, inspection, consolidation, and removal of all warheads and fissile material. The president must make clear that sanctions will endure until dismantlement of the nuclear program is past the point of no return.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @davidmaxwell161Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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