What America needs to learn about North Korea: The game is over

What America needs to learn about North Korea: The game is over
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Since Kim Jong Un’s announcement in 2018 that he would stop testing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and embark upon diplomacy, Western media have kept up a drumbeat about denuclearization: When is it coming? What should Kim offer up first, second and third to show his sincerity? Even most Pyongyang-watchers have contributed to this narrative, adding nuance about the North Korean calculus and past deals made and broken.

When North Korea did not follow the storyline that Washington and its allies expected, the media narrative shifted: North Korea is playing the international community and can’t be trusted. Many Pyongyang-watchers have noted that of course North Korea never intends to give up its nuclear program.

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This indignation and strong dose of “I told you so” is to be expected. It is who we are as Americans, creators of the liberal democratic order, and as a world superpower. We have laid down the rules and expect other countries, even adversaries, to abide by them. Even when we try to understand the other side’s viewpoint, we quickly find out it does not fit easily with our domestic politics. This was made clear over recent months as we heard talk about what Pyongyang needs to do — but silence (or near silence) about what Washington is prepared to do  to satisfy North Korea’s concerns.

This tells anyone willing to look objectively at the challenge of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula that the game is over. In fact, there never was a game. The United States and North Korea are fixed in their positions, and that precludes a clean resolution.

North Korea cannot give up its nuclear program in the face of an existential threat, whether it wants to or not. No matter what economic challenges Kim may face, they are nothing compared to what he would face if forces inside the regime thought he got played by the Americans into parting with major parts of his nuclear/missile program. And President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE’s growing domestic turmoil has removed the space he needs to take a chance on serious engagement with this pariah nation.

Some have suggested the president has some grand plan to loosen up the North Korean negotiating position by shifting back to “maximum pressure.” North Korea was dazed and confused in Hanoi, this argument goes, and now it’s time to apply the screws. This time it will work.

Yet, that storyline doesn’t make sense when we look at the Trump administration’s rhetoric before and after the Hanoi summit. Going in, many Pyongyang-watchers scratched their heads about Ambassador Stephen Biegun’s speech at Stanford, suggesting a North Korea policy characterized by patience and flexibility. He hinted at a phased approach; the hardest elements of maximum pressure seemed to be softening. While sanctions remained in place, maybe a deal could be made.

Since Hanoi, national security adviser John Bolton has taken center stage. Maximum pressure is ramping back up to where it was before the Singapore summit, when Bolton hinted that the Libya experience might be the model for North Korea: full denuclearization before removing sanctions. In recent days, a State Department spokesman and Biegun have noted that a step-by-step process is not on the table; the administration has returned to the comfortable U.S. narrative of dictating the way forward.  

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So where are we? North Korea hasn’t changed its strategy. It continues to hold on to the need for a nuclear program in the face of an existential threat. The term “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” dates to the 1950s and has nothing to do with unilateral denuclearization. The sooner Western media learn this point, the better.

More interesting is what has happened to U.S. policy. The dynamics inside the administration on this issue appear to have changed, though it’s not clear when, or why — whether it was the hardliners finally taking back the strategy, or President Trump giving up on a strategy that was not going to pay big dividends in the near term. What is clear is that, going into the summit, the rhetoric suggested a U.S. policy that was a departure from the past and one that, with time and skill of execution, could pay off. At the very least, it was a policy that could more clearly define North Korea’s boundaries when it comes to the nuclear program. Can it be dismantled, piece by piece, or should we start figuring out how to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea?

What happens next? In his first public announcement since the summit, Kim said he would continue to focus on the economy but whether that changes in the face of sanctions pressure remains to be seen. Over the coming days and weeks it would not be surprising for North Korea to carry on with backdoor diplomacy, nor would it be surprising to see another missile test. It comes down to how Pyongyang reads the Washington tea leaves. Critical to this is the message coming out of the State Department: “[N]obody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach. In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps being … taken.”

Kim and his advisors can take this statement several different ways:

  • Bolton is now calling the shots and the security establishment is getting in line;
  • Pompeo is trying to keep in Trump’s ear as Bolton’s influence grows;
  • The administration is trying to look tough since it appears, from Pyongyang’s perspective, that Trump tanked the summit; or
  • The administration is signaling a return to a hardline policy because it thinks North Korea is desperate and will moderate its stance.

If Pyongyang thinks this is nothing more than posturing within the administration or trying to look tough, Kim likely will continue to play out the diplomatic option, despite Choe Son Hui’s recent hardline statement. But if Pyongyang thinks this represents a fundamental shift back to a hardline U.S. policy, based on Trump and his advisers believing North Korea is desperate, the regime will have little option but to expose the flaw in that assumption, possibly with another missile test.

There is a reason North Korea has been America’s longest-lasting foreign policy challenge, dating to the end of World War II. Geography, politics, ideology, great-power dynamics, regional posturing, balance of forces — nothing lines up in favor of solving it: The United States cannot dictate a solution that fits well within the liberal democratic order; North Korea cannot bust out of its isolation and live with the world on its own terms. The political cultures of the two countries will not allow it.

For that reason, there is no game — no winner, no loser. It just “is,” until the North Korean regime collapses.

The only solution is for both sides to reach an accommodation. For years, accommodation meant isolation and strategic patience. Not surprisingly, nothing happened other than the occasional crisis raising heart rates in the region. For a brief moment over the past year, accommodation meant both sides talking and contemplating steps to give a little to get a little. Now that’s gone; for how long, who knows. Many will say that's a good thing, since the United States did not give away too much. That’s true, but we also didn’t test the true limits of the art of the possible.

Ken E. Gause is the author of “North Korean House of Cards” and the Jamestown Foundation’s white paper, “Assessing North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine and the Prospects for Denuclearization: Diplomacy in the Land of No Good Options.” He directs the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a defense think tank located in northern Virginia.