President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un met this week in Singapore for the first summit between American and North Korean heads of state. While the response among observers has ranged from cautious optimism through skepticism to outright criticism, there is little doubt that the summit signals a momentous sea change in US-North Korean relations and has the potential to significantly alter—for better or worse—one of the world’s most longstanding security challenges. Whether it raises the real prospect of peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is far from certain. But there are important aspects of the summit and any subsequent diplomatic developments that should be examined now. The joint declaration issued in Singapore, for instance—which avoided specifying what exactly denuclearization will entail—is simply the first step on what will at best be a long road to peace. The history of North Korean diplomacy suggests that the much more difficult task confronting the United States and North Korea still lies ahead, as diplomatic professionals hammer out the details of a deal, implement it, and enforce its provisions. As the two sides flesh out the details of the agreement committed to in Singapore, US negotiators will have to counter North Korean “attack diplomacy” to make a deal that will last and achieve its objectives.
Even before the summit occurred, many analysts wrote it off as yet another iteration of the classic pattern of Korean diplomacy, in which North Korea offers the promise of a nuclear-free peninsula only to snatch away the opportunity to secure it at the last moment, often by reneging on a deal it agreed to. North Korea did this in 1985, when it signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty despite never intending to abide by its stipulations. North Korea did it again in 2008, when it went as far as blowing up portions of a nuclear plant in partial fulfillment of a deal before resuming uranium enrichment shortly thereafter. In 2012, North Korea promised to halt missile tests but launched a “satellite” into space less than two months later, sinking the so-called Leap Day agreement with the United States. And most recently, when North Korea blew up its Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site late last month to demonstrate it was ready for another round of denuclearization talks, skeptics imagined Lucy again holding a football for Charlie Brown.
Nonetheless, the Trump-Kim summit may just be the first step to breaking this pattern. The two leaders released a joint statement affirming their dedication to continued diplomacy. While previous deals have resulted in similar declarations and later failed, there is reason to remain cautiously optimistic about the latest round of diplomacy since there is a real chance that US and North Korean interests are finally close enough to make a deal despite the chronic lack of trust between the two parties. North Korea’s application of its trademark brand of diplomacy so far has been merely a less intense version of its typical bombast. And the Trump administration’s approaches to North Korea, from “maximum pressure, maximum engagement” to walking away from the summit once before it finally occurred, have been mostly successful in outmaneuvering North Korea’s diplomatic histrionics.
Pyongyang is not an easy partner to make a deal with, primarily owing to a unique approach to diplomacy that North Koreans call “attack diplomacy.” The use of diplomacy to manipulate Americans is a point of pride for North Koreans, and their propaganda gloats over their aptitude for duplicity and ability to “trick the Yankees.”
Such manipulation only matters if North Korea is negotiating in bad faith. Unfortunately, North Korea is probably more likely to enter into diplomatic negotiations in bad faith than any other state. According to North Korean poet laureate-turned-defector Jang Jin-sung, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, even told his diplomats: “Diplomacy is a counter-intelligence operation.” Its purpose, at least under the elder Kim, was to use words to buy time for North Korea to continue to build its nuclear weapons. Jang elaborates:
North Korea uses dialogue as a tool of deception rather than of negotiation, with the objective being the maintenance of the misplaced trust of the other party. And why not? North Korea’s opacity is its greatest strength. It allows things to be done on its own terms while other countries continue to take what North Korea says at face value.
Nonetheless, this history does not guarantee North Korea is negotiating in bad faith now. Its most recent rhetorical attacks on joint US-South Korean military drills are simply par for the course. In fact, after President Trump initially canceled the summit, reports indicate Kim expressed outrage at the “highly offensive comments” his officials made, instructing them to exchange such “outdated diplomacy practices” for a new, and apparently less combative, “creative diplomacy.” More telling still is that the North Korean People’s Army resisted firing ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan this year, which is the typical kinetic complement to the regime’s bombast. Most significantly of all, Kim’s own domestic rhetoric has been focused on the economy, which he could significantly improve by striking a lasting deal with the United States and South Korea. While these are uncertain indicators of North Korean intent, there’s no reason to write off the possibility that North Korea is looking for a deal. Pre-negotiation attack diplomacy may be public, but it is also mostly harmless and often a poor representation of the regime’s strategic aims.
The essence and strength of North Korean attack diplomacy is its use of strategic ambiguity to create diplomatic outcomes that North Korea can later manipulate when a deal is implemented. The decisive phase of any deal with the North Koreans is not the diplomacy leading up to the deal—or even the high-profile diplomatic engagements—but the implementation phase in which they re-negotiate the meaning of the written agreement. After Pyongyang sets the stage for diplomacy with false promises, provocations, and threats, it historically negotiates using lies and deceit, and then marginalizes the relevance of diplomacy by ignoring many of the agreements it signs once it has received the concessions it seeks. It is a blunt, effective, but predictable approach. Precisely because this is the North Koreans’ pattern for all diplomacy with the United States, we shouldn’t be surprised if we later discover this is what is occurring. It is simply their way of hedging their bets.
Attack diplomacy continues at the negotiating table. North Korean diplomats frequently begin negotiations with hardline and bellicose statements and, if they think negotiations are proceeding poorly, continue with an unyielding attitude and an unwillingness to compromise. This was not on display at the summit, as Kim Jong-un plays by different rules than his subordinates, but it will likely manifest during future working-level meetings where it matters most. At the same time, North Korean stubbornness is no insurmountable obstacle. The United States has achieved detailed negotiated agreements with North Korea in the past.
The reason those deals failed time and again is that North Korea unilaterally abandoned each of them. In the past, after North Korea received the aid it needed or averted a possible preemptive US strike, it simply announced the deals were no longer valid, often quite baldly. There is nothing new about this approach. As Adm. C. Turner Joy—who negotiated the armistice that ceased open hostilities in the Korean War in 1953—put it in his memoir, Negotiating With Communists, “Communists are not embarrassed in the least to deny an agreement already reached . . . [and] simply state your interpretation is an incorrect one.”
Overall, then, North Korean diplomacy before and after the summit is proceeding according to a standard pattern, which gives us no remarkable reasons to be hopeful, but few reasons to be alarmed either. Attack diplomacy is an inconvenience, not a threat. Given the apparent dedication of both President Trump and his North Korean counterpart to making a deal, it seems likely they will continue to move toward a signed, detailed agreement on “denuclearization” in Korea. That’s when the real art of the deal begins. A deal will only prove durable—as previous deals with North Korea have not—if it is based on compatible interests. “Win-win” scenarios rely more on interest than on trust, after all. The key question is: Can the United States and North Korea reconcile their different definitions of denuclearization, sign a deal, and actually stick to it?
Although both parties agree that the way forward is “denuclearization,” there is no common definition of the term between them. North Korea probably prefers it that way, as it is relatively more flexible and ambiguity benefits Pyongyang. America has long called for the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (or CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the architecture that produced them. North Korea, meanwhile, advocates for a gradual and phased “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and this language made it into the joint Trump-Kim statement. In its proposed quid pro quo—championed by Kim Jong-un but first articulated by his father, Kim Jong-il—North Korea will progressively reduce its nuclear capabilities, while US leaders and allies encourage such efforts by exhibiting “good will,” contributing to “an atmosphere of peace and stability,” and pursuing “progressive and synchronous measures” to help realize complete denuclearization.
In the best possible scenario for North Korea, those “progressive and synchronous measures” provide a security guarantee that eliminates North Korea’s need for the nuclear deterrent. In the past, North Koreans have argued that sustaining “good will” requires the United States to collapse its “nuclear umbrella” protecting South Korea, end its “hostile policy” to the North by signing a peace treaty formally concluding the Korean War, normalize diplomatic relations, loosen economic sanctions, and withdraw the 30,000 US soldiers who currently reinforce South Korea’s security. In short, North Korea wants a deal that rebalances the Korean security environment in its favor, negating the country’s supposed justification for needing nuclear weapons. President Trump has already demonstrated some “good will” in his stated commitment to cancel the semiannual, joint US-South Korean military drills, which North Korea has long referred to as “invasion rehearsals” and evidence of America’s “hostile policy.” Likewise, there are strong indications that North and South Korea may sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Even if North Korea agrees to CVID, it will almost certainly demand the same sort of concessions it has demanded in exchange for the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
There are three ways the United States and North Korea might reconcile their visions of denuclearization and build a lasting deal. First, North Korea could decide that it really is better off without nuclear weapons and acquiesce to CVID. Many theorists contend, however, that that there is no single incentive—or combination of political, economic, and security concessions—powerful enough to convince a lonely despot trapped between multiple great powers that he is somehow safer without nuclear weapons. North Korea learned from the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, that dictators who give up their nuclear weapons programs are eventually toppled. (The Trump administration’s several, pre-summit invocations of the “Libya model” served as a useful reminder on the lesson, too.) The ultimate purpose of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is to protect North Korea from the United States and South Korea, which together pose an existential threat to the Kim regime. While the current South Korean administration is friendly to the North, South Korean conservatives are not and could return to power as soon as 2022. South Korea still appoints shadow governors for every North Korean province. The North’s nuclear weapons all but guarantee that the South Koreans cannot resume the war.
Second, there is a nonzero chance that North Korea perceives the People’s Republic of China as a greater threat to its long-term interests than South Korea. Kim Jong-il, for example, considered China the greatest threat to North Korea, and called the Yalu River separating China from Korea “an ideological border, just like the 38th parallel.” After current Chinese ruler Xi Jinping took power in 2012, Sino-North Korean relations sunk to an all-time low and North Korea began conducting nuclear and missile tests during major Chinese-hosted international summits, which undermined China’s leadership role. Today, while the United States aims to balance China’s rise in Asia, South Korea is uniquely amenable to building new ties with the North. Meanwhile, China is increasingly aggressive and powerful. Kim Jong-un could feel more threatened by the millions of soldiers in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army than he does by the 30,000 American soldiers in Korea. If that’s the case, he may be looking to make an unprecedented deal in which he not only defuses tensions, but strategically aligns with the United States and South Korea. If he did, it would certainly not be the first time a materially weaker state betrayed an ally to join a balancing coalition against a more proximal threat aspiring to regional hegemony. Given a liberal pro-engagement government in Seoul’s Blue House and a maverick in Washington’s White House, the summit may just have provided the high-stakes platform Kim needed to make an otherwise improbable strategic defection. While China supports North Korean denuclearization, the longtime North Korean lifeline was not a party to the summit, making it a unique opportunity for North Korea to strike a deal with the United States without direct Chinese interference. Despite displays of friendly relations, Chinese strategists worry North Korea could be preparing to turn on them.
The third way the United States and North Korea might get to a denuclearization deal is by softening the definition of CVID. In the past, stringent verification requirements have stalled denuclearization efforts in North Korea. If history serves as any guide, the North Koreans’ distrust of Washington, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the international community means they are likely unwilling to agree to an intrusive inspection regime. But CVID is practically impossible without a verification regime that is both immediate and intrusive. Instead, the United States could seek a softer deal, in which it grants concessions or aid in exchange for measures that prevent North Korea from employing its alleged capability to launch a nuclear-armed missile at the US homeland. Trading concessions for time and trust may allow the deal—or future ones—to prevent North Korea from producing additional nuclear weapons.
The disadvantages of such a deal are numerous. Above all, it gives North Korea a chance to simply walk away once it has gained the immediate benefits of the deal, as it has done so many times before. And in the absence of verification, a meaningful deal relies on trust—something in short supply not just between the United States and North Korea, but between all states.
Overall, the greatest obstacles confronting both sides as they try to secure the deal they have now promised to seek have less to do with combative negotiating tactics and more to do with stubborn geopolitical realities. At the same time, these realities are as they are perceived to be by either party. The situation is far from hopeless but does have a looming expiration date. We do not know exactly what North Korea wants since we still do not know exactly what the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” means, itself a deliberate effect of attack diplomacy in action. North Korea does not boast a proven track record of abiding by international agreements, but it can adhere to a deal in its own best interests like any other rational state. The challenge confronting the president and his team will be negotiating an agreement that makes both sides want to keep the deal.
T.S. Allen (@TS_Allen) and Luke J. Schumacher are officers in the US Army who previously served in the Republic of Korea. Luke served as the executive officer of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, which conducts military-to-military dialogue with the North Korean People’s Army. T.S. served in a strategic intelligence unit. The views presented here are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of the US Department of Defense or its components.