Can the U.S. Reinstate “Maximum Pressure” on North Korea?

Washington Needs a Plan B if Diplomacy Fails

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.


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

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