U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend a meeting in Singapore, June 2018.
KCNA via REUTERS

The diplomatic sprint to North Korean denuclearization has slowed to a crawl. Earlier last month, North Korea abruptly canceled talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with reports suggesting that Pyongyang continues to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is serious about giving up his nuclear weapons, chances are good that the United States is going to need a Plan B to manage the nuclear threat.

Unfortunately, the air had already been leaking out of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy since early to mid-2018. Worse still, it will likely prove extremely difficult to revive international efforts to squeeze North Korea if the current diplomatic push hits a dead end. Key countries that were supportive of the pressure campaign—most notably China and South Korea—are intent on mending ties with Pyongyang, which for now has ceased the type of provocations that could unite the world against it. Meanwhile, Trump’s lavish praise of Kim has further impeded the United States’ ability to rally foreign partners to pressure the North.

If current trends continue, any attempt to reinstate maximum pressure may well prove ineffective. The hard collapse of diplomacy could dangerously narrow U.S. policy options and make military conflict more likely.

A THREE-PRONGED STRATEGY

The North Korea maximum-pressure strategy rested on three pillars that, as of early 2018, were effectively squeezing the North Korean regime. The first was a series of United Nations Security Council Resolutions in 2017 that banned North Korea’s most lucrative exports, including coal, iron ore, seafood, and textiles. This meant that about 90 percent of North Korean exports—which stood to net the regime about $2.7 billion—were now illegal. These resolutions also reduced the North’s most critical import—oil—and laid the legal foundations to cut off various North Korean workarounds, such as at-sea transfers of illicit cargo from one ship to another (known as “ship-to-ship” transfers). For the first time, world powers, including China, had finally agreed to meaningfully target those things that mattered most to the regime: revenue and oil.

UN resolutions, however, are effective only if enforced. Accordingly, the United States engaged in intensive diplomatic outreach—the second pillar of the strategy—to encourage countries to clamp down on North Korean illicit activity. The Trump team made the pressure campaign a top priority. As a result, partners could be sure that at almost every diplomatic encounter, the United States would bring a number of concrete proposals to rein in North Korean behavior. Washington was willing to put other policies on the line in service of this strategy. For example, the U.S. withheld military aid to Egypt in 2017 in part because of the country’s continued ties to North Korea.

This diplomatic strategy soon began to pay off. By September 2017, over 20 countries had restricted North Korea’s diplomatic activities, which Pyongyang uses to aid its sanctions evasion. The United States was also able to keep South Korea aligned with the pressure campaign. Most important, Washington persuaded Beijing to up the pressure by more rigorously enforcing UN sanctions—which, in turn, put added strain on North Korea’s economy and caused relations between China and North Korea to plummet.

The United States also expanded its own sanctions efforts against Pyongyang—the third pillar of the strategy. This included significantly upping the number and scope of sanctions designations and implementing a new executive order that made it easier to go after third parties such as banks and businesses that aided North Korean entities. These measures not only denied access to the U.S. financial system but also helped draw attention to problematic North Korean behaviors—such as Pyongyang’s attempts to mask the origin of its ships and illicit cargo. By demonstrating increased willingness to impose economic costs on those who did business with North Korea—including China—the United States encouraged countries to distance themselves from Pyongyang to avoid becoming a target of U.S. sanctions.

In practice, these three efforts were complementary. The U.S. approach to combating North Korean attempts to illicitly acquire fuel through ship-to-ship transfers is instructive. Through a combination of UN bans on at-sea transfers, intelligence and diplomatic efforts that exposed North Korean tactics and pressured Pyongyang’s enablers, and U.S. and UN sanctions on entities involved, the United States made significant headway against North Korean cheating. The goal was not to convince North Korea to stop evading sanctions or to prevent every illegal shipment—an impossible task—but to raise the costs of working with North Korea for other nations and third parties.

A SUDDEN SHIFT

The maximum-pressure strategy probably could not have forced North Korea to give up its entire nuclear weapons program. But it stood the best chance of providing the United States leverage to secure meaningful reductions and limits from Pyongyang. Exactly how well it could have worked will remain an unknown, because without warning Trump pivoted to premature diplomacy with Kim.

Trump’s sudden announcement in March that he would accept Kim’s invitation to meet opened the diplomatic relief valve on the pressure campaign. In the months that followed, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in would have three diplomatic summits. Kim would also travel to China for three visits with President Xi Jinping, including Kim’s first ever trip outside of North Korea and first meeting with a head of state since coming to power. As if flipping a switch, Trump shifted from issuing threats and personal insults against Kim to praising him as a “very honorable” leader.  

Many elements of the pressure strategy still exist in theory and on paper. Sanctions remain in place, and the United States is working to enforce them. But the North Korean regime’s high tolerance for economic pain and adeptness at evading sanctions mean that if Washington is not adding pressure on North Korea, it is losing pressure. Building and sustaining momentum is critical, especially if the goal is to force Kim to conclude he needs to make cuts to his arsenal to survive.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits fisheries in the Donghae area, North Korea, in this picture released by the Korean Central News Agency in December 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits fisheries in the Donghae area, North Korea, in this picture released by the Korean Central News Agency in December 2018.
KCNA via REUTERS

Unfortunately, the maximum-pressure campaign against North Korea has been losing momentum since early to mid-2018. Three developments are eroding the conditions that made it work. First, key partners—namely, China and South Korea—are easing up on pressure and are highly unlikely to jump back into an aggressive U.S. strategy just because Washington says so. Reports indicate that China has slackened in sanctions enforcement, including by relaxing inspections of goods flowing across the Chinese–North Korean border. Chinese leaders—along with Russian officials—are increasing calls for sanctions relief to aid diplomatic efforts. China clearly has no appetite for stronger measures at this juncture. Relations between Kim and Xi have rebounded since last year, and increasing economic and political tensions between the United States and China give Beijing even fewer reasons to cooperate.

The maximum-pressure campaign against North Korea has been losing momentum since early to mid-2018.

The more dramatic shift is in South Korea, where Moon appears intent on forging ahead toward reconciling with Pyongyang and seems unwilling to let Washington’s goal of denuclearization dictate the pace of the inter-Korean peace-building efforts. This is creating political tensions between Seoul and Washington—surely to Pyongyang’s content. Thus, what was a key enabler of U.S. successes in 2017—Chinese and South Korean cooperation—is now a vulnerability. A U.S. decision to suddenly ramp up pressure would be fighting against the political headwinds in the region, and is unlikely to succeed.

Absent a resumption of North Korean nuclear or missile testing—or North Korea unilaterally walking away from talks—China and Russia are unlikely to back new UN Security Council resolutions. North Korea’s missile and nuclear provocations in 2017—including its first ever ICBM test, missile launches over Japan, threats to strike Guam, and a claimed thermonuclear nuclear test—provided flashpoints that united the international community around tougher UN measures. The United States needs to entertain the possibility that Kim means at least some of what he says: that he’s sufficiently satisfied with the results of his testing, and has moved his focus to mass production of nuclear weapons and missiles.

Most important, Trump’s embrace of Kim and his continued insistence that the nuclear challenge is all but resolved have cut the legs out from under the U.S. pressure campaign. His advisers and those at the working level of North Korea policy are now at a disadvantage when it comes to trying to sustain pressure. True, Trump has stated that sanctions will remain in force until North Korea denuclearizes. But his general change in rhetoric—including his pronouncement that he no longer wants to use the term “maximum pressure” because the United States and North Korea are “getting along”—and apparent willful blindness to events on the ground speak louder. This provides other countries with top cover to resist or ignore U.S. entreaties on sanctions enforcement, and is being used by North Korea to avoid taking steps toward denuclearization.

Trump’s shift in approach has affected U.S. pressure policy as well: the number of new U.S. sanctions designations has dropped dramatically—a decline of about 85 percent—since Trump’s March decision to meet Kim, in comparison to the year prior when the pressure campaign was in full swing. (Although the administration admittedly still has a few months to catch up, it would need to drastically increase its pace of sanctions designations.) Curtailing further sanctions makes sense if one believes, as Trump apparently does, that Kim has already made the choice to give up his nuclear weapons. But if this round of diplomacy by Kim is just the North’s latest bid to get sanctions relief and gain acceptance of its nuclear arsenal, such a slowdown works in his favor.

THE PRESSURE’S ON

If the United States is to have any hope of resuming a serious pressure campaign, it needs to revamp its diplomatic process in such a way that it can return to maximum pressure should negotiations fail. 

To begin, the administration should drop its maximalist demands that seek quick denuclearization and only promise sanctions relief when the last nuclear weapon has left North Korea. This plan stands almost no chance of being accepted by Pyongyang, and gives China, South Korea, and others the impression that the United States isn’t seriously interested in finding a solution. That’s bad for pressure, as the United States will be blamed if and when diplomacy fails. Instead, Washington should prioritize developing a roadmap with Pyongyang that lays out a step-by-step approach that provides rewards along the way commensurate with North Korean actions.

As part of this plan, the United States also needs to disabuse North Korea of the notion that it can avoid working-level dialogue while holding out for the one-on-one meeting with Trump, where Kim believes he’s more likely to get what he wants. The United States should refuse a second summit unless such dialogue occurs and produces something for the two sides to agree on: in essence, no pageantry without a process.

U.S. diplomats then need to take this plan—which stands a better chance of success—on the road, making clear that diplomacy will only work if all are united in maintaining pressure on North Korea. They should also seek to negotiate new steps to increase pressure now in the event North Korea does not take advantage of this diplomatic window. The logic is clear: since Pyongyang has not stopped adding to its nuclear and missile arsenal—a violation of its commitments—there is no reason for the international community to throttle back its pressure.

Washington can also take unilateral steps now to prevent the further erosion of pressure in ways that are less likely to upset the diplomatic apple cart. For example, the administration should build on its wise decision announced last month to create a working group with South Korea on North Korea by pushing for a similar, but perhaps more narrowly focused, working group with Beijing. Washington could also expand sanctions designations against third parties involved in illicit North Korean activities.

Those who fear a return to the days of Trump’s threats to “totally destroy” North Korea should support developing a smooth transition to greater international pressure if and when the time comes. After all, the failure to attract an international coalition is more likely to lead the Trump administration to rely on unilateral—and possibly military—measures. Taking these steps will preserve the option of returning to an effective maximum-pressure campaign, and will also make it more likely that Trump’s diplomatic gambit succeeds.

  • ERIC BREWER is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and he previously served on the National Security Council staff.
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