US Foreign Policy
Issue Brief

Challenges of Negotiating with North Korea

Dialogue with North Korea ranks high on Biden’s foreign policy to-do list. However, the path forward is not without obstacles—old and new.

As the Biden administration finalizes its policy review on North Korea, the legacy of the Trump administration’s summit diplomacy, Pyongyang’s continued nuclear development, and an unsustainable status quo cast a shadow on the future of U.S.-DPRK diplomacy. Policymakers in Washington sit at a critical junction for the future of Northeast Asia. Jenny Town, Senior Fellow at Stimson and Director of 38 North, unpacks the dynamics Biden faces and issues needed recommendations for peace, stability, and successful diplomatic engagement. A long-term, step-by-step approach offers the best chance of toward North Korean denuclearization and security for the U.S. and its allies.

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As reports suggest the Biden administration is nearing completion of its comprehensive North Korea policy review, a few messages about what the policy may entail have started to surface. A focus on diplomacy has been a central theme so far, although with numerous questions about what that means in practice. Close consultation with U.S. allies in the region—South Korea and Japan—has been another dominant theme stressed throughout this process, including a push toward greater trilateral cooperation to address the challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear pursuits. During the recent visit of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Asia, Blinken also heavily criticized North Korea’s human rights record and explored prospects for cooperation with China on denuclearization efforts.

How these various themes will be woven together in the coming weeks to form a coherent strategy on North Korea is yet to be seen. However, no matter what the Biden administration decides to pursue, there are some key challenges it will face in any diplomatic efforts. 

An Unsustainable Status Quo

First and foremost, the biggest challenge the Biden administration faces is that settling for the status quo means North Korea will continue to develop the size, diversity, and lethality of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. There is no doubt that it continued to develop its nuclear and missile technologies over the past few years, despite ongoing negotiations, as evidenced by its testing and displays of new ballistic missiles, its reporting of a new ballistic missile submarine nearing completion, and satellite imagery evidence of continued activity around its nuclear and missile related facilities. Furthermore, at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un outlined plans for advancing various WMD capabilities, conventional weapons systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and military reconnaissance satellites. 1“Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory on Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/en/on-report-at-eighth-congress-of-wpk/.

As the North’s WMD programs grow, especially its long-range capabilities, it both increases Pyongyang’s ability to threaten U.S. allies in the region and starts to erode confidence in U.S. extended deterrence over time. The more North Korea can threaten the U.S. mainland, the more questions are raised—rightly or wrongly—about the choices Washington will make in a situation where both U.S. and ROK or Japanese cities fall under threat. This growing concern has already led to serious debate in South Korea about when and whether it needs to have its own nuclear capabilities to match the North’s and this trend will not reverse until significant progress is made on the denuclearization front.

Moreover, the more extensive and more advanced the North’s nuclear programs become, the more leverage it gains in future negotiations. These are all problems that are worth addressing proactively now, no matter how difficult the proposition, to help foster greater peace and security in the region and strengthen U.S. alliances.

Reviving Negotiations

While diplomacy is needed to address North Korea’s growing WMD capabilities, one of the first challenges the new administration will face is how to revive negotiations. Reports that the North Koreans have been unresponsive to early overtures from the U.S. should not come as a surprise as the bar for resuming negotiations on the North Korean side appears to be quite high.

Without some evidence that the Biden administration is serious about changing the relationship— not just seeking nuclear concessions—invitations to resume talks will have little appeal to Kim, who is preoccupied with domestic hardships and morale.

Since the failure to secure an agreement at the Hanoi Summit in 2019, Kim Jong Un has expressed on multiple occasions a declining belief the nature of U.S.-DPRK relations can fundamentally change. In effect—without some evidence that the Biden administration—is serious about changing the relationship, not just seeking nuclear concessions, invitations to resume talks will have little appeal to Kim, who is preoccupied with domestic hardships and morale.

The past few years of unconventional or disruptive diplomacy under Trump created interesting new opportunities, especially gaining access to Kim Jong Un directly. But the inability to transform those unconventional approaches into tangible results may be more detrimental to the prospects of continuing negotiations than anticipated. After all, the common narrative at that time was that that if anyone was willing to strike a deal with North Korea, it would be Trump; and the combination of Trump’s strongman tactics and South Korean President Moon’s overwhelming political goodwill bred an enormous amount of optimism on the Korean side of the equation that bold, swift, and positive changes were possible in the near term.

The early commitments made through the Panmunjom Summit declaration raised expectations that long-stalled inter-Korean cooperation would be restarted and that progress toward a peace regime and economic cooperation were on the horizon.

The Singapore Summit Joint Statement, while lacking a concrete plan for advancing the U.S.-DPRK relationship, committed both sides to an agenda that put equal priority on normalizing U.S.-DPRK relations, building a peace regime, and working toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It was not simply agreeing to nuclear negotiations, but it essentially recognized the need to address the political and security environment as well, in order to make progress in any of these areas. This too raised expectations that U.S.-DPRK relations could chart a new course.

But despite all these commitments, very few results were achieved. The inter-Korean progress stalled when South Korea failed to secure sanctions exemptions to move forward with inter-Korean economic projects and negotiations with the U.S. got hung up over the nuclear pillar of the agenda. The relationship Trump often boasted he had with Kim as a result of the Singapore Summit did not translate into either unilateral gestures by the U.S. to support the diplomatic process or actual agreements.

Moreover, imprecise language about issues like U.S.-ROK joint military exercises—were they to be stopped altogether or suspended or scaled back—led to further misunderstandings, with clearly differing interpretations in Washington and Pyongyang about what was committed. The continued U.S. imposition of sanctions while negotiations were ongoing and unfulfilled of commitments from Trump—especially an end of war declaration that was reportedly promised by Trump to Kim, without conditions, at the Singapore Summit—all contributed to a disillusionment in the process. 

The lessons that the North Koreans appear to have learned from the Trump era of negotiations were that the big diplomatic gamble with South Korea and the U.S. amounted to little, and that whether there was a traditional or unconventional president in the U.S., the result was the same. The unilateral gestures made by Pyongyang in 2018 to jump start the diplomatic process did not make a difference in the end, and negotiating directly with presidents did not bring about different results. 

This does not mean that the prospects for future negotiations are dead. Kim Jong Un still spoke positively about the summit process in his speech to the Eighth Party Congress. However, that does not mean he is in any rush to get back to negotiations either. Instead, he essentially portrayed the door to diplomacy as unlocked, leaving the task of opening that door in the hands of Washington and Seoul.

Challenges for New Negotiations

If and when the U.S. and North Korea can find a way to revive the negotiation process, new challenges also should be expected.

For starters, since the Hanoi Summit, North Korea has changed out most of the top leaders who were involved in past negotiations with the U.S., especially in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of key personnel changes was the dismissal of Ri Yong Ho as Foreign Minister. While Ri did not serve as the interlocutor with the U.S. during the last round of negotiations, his past experience negotiating with Americans as far as the Agreed Framework surely influenced his views on diplomacy and advice to Kim Jong Un on such foreign policy matters. His successor, Ri Son Gwon, on the other hand, as a former army officer, has little experience dealing with the U.S. or nuclear issues. He is largely expected to bring a more hardline approach to the situation, especially given his history as a tough negotiator in inter-Korean relations.

Although the Foreign Ministry did not handle the working-level negotiations with the Trump administration, as they had in past negotiations, it was clear from public statements and the composition of summit delegations that they still played an influential role in the process. It is unclear whether they will take back that portfolio if U.S.-DPRK negotiations resume; regardless, the role they will play, or at the very least the advice they will give about dealing with the United States, is likely to take on a much harder line than before.

Another key development that arose over the past three years that will likely pose a significant challenge to future negotiations is the involvement of Kim Jong Un, himself, in negotiations. Gaining access to Kim may have created a channel for quicker and potentially bolder decisions to be made, but it also constrained the scope and authority of working-level North Korean negotiators. In the lead-up to the Hanoi Summit, for instance, instead of the usual process of negotiating the details of a potential agreement in working-level meetings and using the summit for ceremonial purposes, the North Koreans reserved the negotiation of the nuclear issue for Kim Jong Un to take up directly with Trump. 

Reserving such a technical issue for the heads of state to negotiate during a formal summit  meant there was no guarantee that it would conclude with the desired outcome, especially given the enormous time constraints and pressure of the situation. Despite a build-up of expectations of a deal leading up to Hanoi, miscalculations on both sides eventually led to an early conclusion and both sides walking away empty handed.

Such a format also calls into question whether a deal, if reached, would have contained the level of detail needed to ensure both sides had the same understanding of the commitments made. Misunderstandings or differing interpretations of terms and conditions can lead to quick frustrations, after all, limiting the sustainability of even modest agreements.

Whether Kim will be willing to delegate the authority to negotiate on the nuclear issue back down to the working level going forward is unclear. Should the lead negotiator end up being someone like Ri Song Gwon, who has no experience on this issue, it seems unlikely. But it also seems unlikely that either side will want to risk the high-profile summitry again without some guarantees that they will bring home a win.

As the Biden administration considers its approach, it should take this new dynamic into consideration—a complete return to the more traditional working-level negotiation format may not be effective going forward.

As the Biden administration considers its approach, it should take this new dynamic into consideration—a complete return to the more traditional working-level negotiation format may not be effective going forward. Instead, they may need to find ways to supplement those talks with direct communications with Kim Jong Un as well—such as utilizing the letters between Kim and now Biden in a more substantive way to ensure consensus can be reached before pageantry is planned.

Going Forward

It is clear North Korea will continue to develop its WMD capabilities under the current conditions. However, Pyongyang still poses the programs as necessitated by “U.S. hostile policy.” While this term encompasses a number of political, economic and military grievances in the nature of U.S. relations toward North Korea, the conditional formulation still leaves the door open to finding a path toward denuclearization provided other aspects of the relationship evolve as well. 

For the Biden administration, the continued advancements of the North’s capabilities underscore the need to be proactive on this issue, even if the road seems daunting. While there will be no easy answers, or easy negotiations ahead, the consequences of inaction are serious given how much progress North Korea has made on its WMD development in the past five years and what it could achieve next.

Given the challenges ahead, some final recommendations to the administration as they wrap up their policy review include: 

  • Reaffirm the Singapore Declaration. The importance of upholding the Singapore Joint Statement by the new administration has been widely discussed in policy circles over the past few months including the fact that Kim Jong Un has personally signed this agreement. Of particular note is the fact that this agenda commits North Korea to a denuclearization agenda, while acknowledging the political and security related challenges that are needed to move down that road—something that the North Koreans may be more reluctant to agree to in the future. Furthermore, reaffirming the joint statement would also show that an agreement can be sustained from one U.S. administration to the next and would provide a foundation for building trust over time.
  • Remove unnecessary points of tension. In order to show that the U.S.-DPRK relations are not static but capable of evolving, the administration should consider removing obstacles that pose unnecessary tensions in relations. For instance, removing obstacles to humanitarian aid and medical equipment provision by U.S. nongovernmental organizations, actions which are allowed even under the current sanctions regime, and lifting the travel ban on U.S. citizens travelling to the North Korea, which would have been a logical move once formal negotiations started, would help improve the political environment.
  • Recalibrate expectations. The maximalist position toward North Korea of complete denuclearization up front or even a front-loaded process is unachievable and if maintained, will only prolong the status quo. While denuclearization should remain a goal of diplomacy—and is encompassed in the Singapore Joint Statement, there are more urgent needs that can be addressed first, such as stopping further progress in nuclear and missile capabilities, that can help lower tensions and allow for the relationship to evolve in order to make progress on all fronts of the U.S.-DPRK agenda. A step-by-step, phased approach to denuclearization will take time and patience, but is necessary to address Pyongyang’s broader security concerns. North Korea is not unique in establishing an incredibly high bar for being willing to voluntarily relinquish its nuclear weapons program — a rare choice among nuclear-armed states. In order to get to the end of that denuclearization road, a solid foundation of trust will need to be built over time — and proven sustainable over multiple presidential administrations — for Pyongyang to believe it will be safe from external threats without nuclear weapons while its values still clash with the West and it sits in the middle of a nuclear-armed region.
  • Empower South Korea to revive inter-Korean relations. Creating space for South Korea to move forward on the inter-Korean agenda would help build goodwill both in Seoul and Pyongyang as well. Movement on the peace agenda and/or inter-Korean economic cooperation in some capacity could also increase collective bargaining power, and enable Seoul to play an active and productive role in broader efforts to address peace and security concerns on the Peninsula.

As North Korea resumes missile testing and other activities that start to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula once again, the impulse may be to set aside diplomacy for the near term. However, it is also a clear reminder that the longer we settle for the status quo, the more limited our options become. While there may be both a preference and pressure for pursuing an all-or-nothing approach to denuclearization with North Korea, this policy is doomed to fail. Instead, a long-term, step-by-step approach that offers progress in each of the lines of effort established in the Singapore Joint Statement provides the best chance of actually starting down the denuclearization road and improving the security situation for the U.S. and its allies.

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