Is the US about to lower the bar for North Korea denuclearisation?
- There are growing signs Washington is about to set aside its previous demand for complete disarmament after months of stalemate with Pyongyang
- Reports indicate the Trump administration is considering sanctions relief in exchange for concrete progress towards slowing down the North’s nuclear programme
On Wednesday, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Seoul and Washington were discussing incentives to offer the North in return for significant actions toward nuclear disarmament.
Unnamed South Korean officials, meanwhile, told Reuters this week the US was considering “interim” measures to end the gridlock. South Korea’s Chosun newspaper reported that the Trump administration was weighing sanctions relief in exchange for the North freezing its nuclear programme and sending its intercontinental ballistic missiles abroad for disposal.
The Trump administration, which has repeatedly insisted that there would be no sanctions relief before complete denuclearisation, has kept mum on reports of a change in policy.
At their first summit in Singapore last June, Trump and Kim signed a vaguely worded statement in which Pyongyang agreed to the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. Pyongyang has taken only reversible or largely symbolic steps toward disarmament since, holding out for “corresponding measures” from the US – widely interpreted to mean a relaxation of sanctions.
Although Trump claimed last year there was “no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea, frustration has been building for months in Washington over the lack of results produced by the Singapore agreement.
“An ‘interim deal’ is plausible because the last summit increasingly looks like a failure in hindsight,” said Van Jackson, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and the author of On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War.
“This summit would have to produce something deeper than rhetoric that completely contradicts reality. The issue is what’s on the table, and how reversible the measures each side agrees to would be.”
MIT’s Narang said one possible outcome would be for Washington to indirectly relax pressure on the North by endorsing South Korea’s desire to increase economic cooperation with its neighbour.
“One back door could be giving a blessing to inter-Korean trade, and exemptions on certain types of trade between the North and South, which helps the inter-Korean process, and also looks like sanctions relief from the US,” he said. “And so you get this kind of symbolic thing that the North Koreans are looking for, and that would be a reflection of reality and also make progress in the relationship.”
Although analysts are widely sceptical that Pyongyang can ever be convinced to entirely give up its nuclear weapons, interim measures to limit the growth of its arsenal would reduce the risk of accidental detonation and nuclear proliferation.
“If you could slow plutonium production and tritium production, that could really change the composition of the future force, and it’s a meaningful objective,” Narang said. “The question is, ‘At what price?’”
Jackson from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre cautioned that even a modest breakthrough could be too much to expect from the next Trump-Kim summit.
“North Korea has been crystal clear it’s not denuclearising without something dramatic from the US, and even then there’s no indication North Korea would actually follow through,” he said.
“There are also some basic logistical issues to work out ahead of a summit; ideally they would coordinate joint statements or agree upon deliverables, and that would take multiple high-level visits. Of course they had multiple high-level visits ahead of the last summit and yet agreed on nothing, leading to confusion, misunderstandings, and false boasts in the wake of the summit.”