Diplomacy is more important than ever for any deal with North Korea

Diplomacy is more important than ever for any deal with North Korea
© Getty Images

Presidential visits can be effective and meaningful tools of statecraft. Theodore Roosevelt became the first sitting president to travel abroad in 1906 when he inspected the construction of the Panama Canal, heralding the emergence of the United States as a global power. The speech John Kennedy gave in West Berlin in 1963 was delivered less than two years after the Berlin Wall was built, highlighting West Berlin as an outpost of freedom and the Berlin Wall as evidence of the evil communist bloc.

It remains to be seen if the impromptu meeting between President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnUS proposed helping North Korea build tourist area amid nuclear talks: report Kim poses for photos on white horse on sacred mountain, plans 'great operation' Beware the 34th month of Trump's presidency MORE within the demilitarized zone last weekend will ultimately be seen in a similar light. After a year of pageantry and drama that included three meetings between Trump and Kim, and with negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang set to commence in a few weeks, we are left to examine the state of relations between the United States and North Korea, and how it may evolve going forward.

It has been more than a year since Trump and Kim first met in Singapore, heralding the first time the leaders of the United States and North Korea would meet in person. The meeting was undoubtedly historic, and raised hopes that high level diplomacy would help the United States and North Korea break out of the failed diplomacy of the past. Yet, what has changed since Singapore? On the surface, the strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula has improved, as tensions there have been reduced markedly, and Pyongyang has refrained from conducting major tests of its nuclear weapons and long range ballistic missiles, although it has conducted some tests of short range ballistic missiles, which Trump has dismissed.

ADVERTISEMENT

But below the surface, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula has not improved. There is no freeze in place, while North Korea has now reportedly built more rockets and warheads since its weapons tests ended. At the same time, Kim has been active diplomatically, meeting with leaders from South Korean, Russia, and China. The international coalition the Trump administration built to maximize pressure on North Korea has dissipated, and is unlikely to return if the Trump administration seeks to return to pressure in the face of future diplomatic difficulties.

Ultimately, if diplomacy with North Korea is to begin again, negotiators will likely find that all of the summits and pageantry of the past year have not resulted in fundamental changes to the dynamics at play. The United States has not abandoned its goal of denuclearization or the international sanctions that have been enforced against Pyongyang, and North Korea has not abandoned its ambitions to be recognized as a nuclear state and have the crippling international sanctions removed. North Korea is just as repressive as ever, and distrust on both sides remains deep and broad.

If diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang is to start, officials will need to solve the same challenges that have vexed past negotiations with North Korea. American negotiators are suspicious about the possibility of North Korea cheating on any deal, and they will likely insist on an invasive inspection and monitoring regime that would be anathema to a country as hermetic as North Korea. There is always the question of how to sequence tangible progress on denuclearization with inducements for North Korea, as neither side is willing to give more than they receive at any phase of a step by step process. There is also significant distrust of the United States within North Korea, and any guarantees of its security are unlikely to be sufficient to convince Pyongyang to voluntarily denuclearize on its own.

It is also unclear if the United States can sustain a diplomatic effort with limited aims. Trump administration officials are reportedly divided about how to proceed, and the unpredictable approach of the president does not give American negotiators a solid foundation on which to proceed. Trump has also placed himself at the center of these talks, undermining the role of his negotiating team. If North Korean negotiators believe that their American counterparts are not speaking for the president, or that Kim can get a better deal at his next summit with Trump, there is little chance the American negotiators, no matter how skilled, can succeed.

Diplomacy with North Korea should certainly be supported, and a realistic initiative managed by professionals will give the United States the best chance of success. However, those diplomats face significant headwinds from Pyongyang and from their own government. While the “fire and fury” tensions that Trump stoked two years ago seem like a distant memory today, the underlying dynamics of those tensions have not disappeared. Yet, that same context also makes diplomacy more important than ever.

Abraham Denmark is director of the Asia Program and senior fellow at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for East Asia policy at the United States Department of Defense.