A Better North Korea Strategy

How to Coerce Pyongyang Without Starting a War

Missiles at a military parade in Pyongyang, February 2018 KCNA / REUTERS

When it comes to cultivating unpredictability, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seem eager to outdo each other. Those following the unfolding drama over the anticipated summit between the two leaders are growing accustomed to motion sickness.

The first about-face came in March, when Trump made an on-the-spot decision to meet with Kim after several months of trading insults and threats. Some positive developments followed: North Korea froze nuclear and ballistic missile tests, closed a nuclear test site, and released three American detainees. In April, Kim committed to “complete denuclearization” at a meeting in Panmunjom with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, prompting questions about what North Korea meant by “denuclearization” and what it might ask for in return. Despite this uncertainty, Trump greeted the news of the inter-Korean summit with enthusiasm and later raised expectations for his own meeting with Kim, declaring that “the United States has never been closer to potentially having something happen with respect to the Korean Peninsula that can get rid of the nuclear weapons.” 

Then, in mid-May, Pyongyang pivoted back to insult- and threat-laced rhetoric, throwing the summit itself into question. Trump responded with another surprise move on May 24, writing in a letter to Kim that, at this point, a summit would be “inappropriate.” Just a few hours later, however, North Korea conveyed that it was still willing to meet with the United States. Trump then tweeted: “We are having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit.” For now, preparations are under way for the meeting to take place, either on June 12, as scheduled, or at a later date. Still, observers should expect more sudden turns in the days and weeks ahead.

These recent developments underscore the importance of embedding the U.S. approach to North Korea within a broader strategy that advances long-term U.S. interests in the region, including, but not limited to, North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. To chart a steady

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