North Korean Denuclearization Is Steadily Slipping Away

In this undated photo distributed on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, celebrates what was said to be the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea.  (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
In this undated photo distributed on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, celebrates what was said to be the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

It has been almost six months since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore. Since then, despite a flurry of diplomatic activity, there has been little tangible progress in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

Indeed, it appears that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. If so, the Trump administration's first major foreign policy initiative will become its biggest failure.

The Singapore Declaration that accompanied the Trump-Kim Summit was thin on details. The 400-word document declared that the U.S. would "normalize" relations with North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang's "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." The document did not provide a timeline nor what concrete steps would be implemented to achieve that objective.

Subsequently, North Korea insisted that the process of normalization-denuclearization would have to take place in a series of reciprocal steps. US. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, reiterated the Trump administration's position that "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization'' is a precondition for normalization of relations between the two countries and for the lifting of the U.N.-mandated economic sanctions.

A Framework for Understanding U.S.-North Korea Negotiations

Following the Singapore Summit, the Trump administration claimed that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapons in return for economic development and financial aid. Trump even mused about the prospect of building beach condos in North Korea and opening the country up to investment, trade and tourism development. There is no evidence, however, that economic development has ever been an overriding goal of the Pyongyang government.

The North Korean government is a transnational criminal organization that maintains power by ruthlessly exploiting its citizens and by engaging in a wide range of criminal activities, from the export of slave labor, to smuggling, cybercrime, gun running, narcotics and counterfeiting. Western intelligence agencies estimate that these activities generate between $500 million and $1 billion in revenue for Pyongyang -- plenty of cash to keep the Kim family in the style that it has grown accustomed to.

For the last 30 years, during both Democratic and Republican administrations, North Korea has consistently failed to honor the agreements it has signed to abandon or limit its nuclear weapons and missile development. Beyond perpetuating their power, the one consistent, overriding objective pursued by three generations of Kims has been the unification of the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang. A nuclear arsenal is considered fundamental to achieving that goal, to ejecting the U.S. troops in South Korea, and to neutralizing Washington's security guarantee to Seoul.

Moreover, North Korea has demonstrated that it can use its military power to obtain economic assistance and financial concessions from Seoul. The threat that its nuclear capabilities would constrain the U.S. from honoring its security commitments to South Korea or lead to its disengagement from the Korean peninsula only enhances Pyongyang's leverage.

It is the prospect of regime change, not constructing beachfront condos, that will induce Pyongyang to denuclearize. Such regime change can come from three possible sources: a military attack by the U.S. that results in the collapse of North Korea, Pyongyang's economic collapse from the imposition of economic sanctions, or a coup against Kim Jong-un and the Kim family.

The likelihood of a military strike against North Korea's nuclear arsenal is low. First, it is not clear where the nuclear weapons are stored. Some of the intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles are deployed on mobile launchers and presumably are moved around. Moreover, intelligence agencies believe there are several hundred facilities, some of which have hundreds of individual buildings, involved in North Korea's nuclear program.

A military strike would cripple Pyongyang's nuclear program, but it would not destroy it or eliminate North Korea's counter-strike capability. Moreover, North Korea also has a formidable arsenal of biological and chemical weapons it could unleash on South Korea and possibly Japan. It also has conventional military forces, including massed artillery well in range of South Korea's capital Seoul, which it could deploy.

Finally, it is inconceivable that the U.S. could launch a military strike against North Korea without the support and cooperation of South Korea. That prospect is very remote. The Moon government has all but declared that the military option is off the table. Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang is diverging from Washington's. If not quite at odds with the U.S. approach, South Korea is well ahead of Washington in engaging North Korea.

Economic sanctions, what the Trump administration calls "a policy of maximum pressure," could impose a steep enough economic price on North Korea to induce Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons. To date, however, "maximum pressure" is not working.

First, Pyongyang has demonstrated repeatedly that it will accept enormous suffering by North Koreans rather than abandon its nuclear program. Economic pain is relevant to Pyongyang only if it can trigger a regime change, either by a coup or a popular uprising. The suffering of North Koreans simply doesn't enter into Kim's calculations.

Secondly, the key to the success of sanctions is China, which is responsible for more than 85 percent of North Korea's trade. Without Beijing's supply of many critical items, including fuel oil and gasoline, the North Korean economy would implode. China is also the principal market for North Korea's exports, especially coal. In addition, Pyongyang relies on Beijing for a range of official and unofficial financial aid.

Initially, Beijing appeared to be honoring the latest round of U.N.-mandated sanctions. Chinese-North Korean trade declined precipitously in the first half of 2018. Coal exports took a sharp dip, and Beijing blocked Chinese companies from engaging with North Korea. Since the Singapore Summit, however, Beijing has stepped back from rigorously enforcing economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Coal imports from North Korea have rebounded. China is continuing to supply critical petroleum distillates and is again allowing North Korean workers into China. In addition, Beijing has joined with Russia and North Korea in calling for a relaxation of the economic sanction imposed by the U.N. Security Council. Officially, China is still enforcing the sanctions, but unofficially it is allowing enough "leakage" to permit the North Korean regime to survive.

Regime change in North Korea could produce a breakthrough in the current stalemate, but that is not a foregone conclusion. While Kim Jong-un's behavior in the past has been provocative, the advantage that possessing nuclear weapons gives Pyongyang is independent of who heads North Korea. Regime change could result in a less provocative North Korean leader without changing Pyongyang's desire to further develop its nuclear arsenal.

An alternative to Kim might come either from the Kim family or from North Korea's military leadership. In either case, a coup would require the support, if not active participation, of China. It would result in more Chinese influence in North Korea and a firmer linkage of the North Korean nuclear program with the broader issues of U.S.-Chinese relations. In short, regime change may not necessarily result in Washington's preferred outcome.

What is happening on the Korean Peninsula is a complicated minuet between China, North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. Each side is attempting to drive a wedge between their opponent and their superpower supporter in order to maximize their leverage in any negotiations.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un have had three summit meetings in 2018. Officially, Seoul and Washington are still aligned in demanding North Korean denuclearization. Seoul, however, has been offering Pyongyang a broad range of financial support and investment in its quest to create a peaceful Korean peninsula. Implementing this financial support before a broader U.S.-North Korean agreement or Pyongyang's denuclearization, however, would precipitate a political crisis between Washington and Seoul.

More troublesome for the U.S. is that South Korea is beginning to echo North Korean demands that its progress toward denuclearization be accompanied by "concrete steps" by the U.S. to normalize relations and, presumably, an easing of economic sanctions. Moreover, Seoul is pushing for a formal peace treaty with Pyongyang as part of the normalization process as opposed, as the U.S. wants, to rewarding North Korea with a peace treaty after it denuclearizes.

The U.S. has attempted to drive a wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang. After the Singapore Summit, Washington appeared to be freezing Beijing out of the negotiations, preferring to deal directly with North Korea. This approach has not afforded the U.S. much leverage, however. Kim has made repeated visits to Beijing to confer with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and China continues to give Pyongyang diplomatic, and unofficially, economic support.

The Trump administration's crackdown on "unfair Chinese trade practices" may reflect its view that it no longer needs China to resolve the North Korean crisis or it may indicate that the U.S. is explicitly tying the Korean issue to the broader issues of U.S.-China relations. That may stoke North Korean fears that China will throw Pyongyang under the bus in pursuit of its own foreign policy objectives with the U.S.

From Beijing's perspective, a continuation of the present situation is ideal. It maintains the status quo while allowing Beijing additional leverage against Washington. As long as there is no imminent collapse of North Korea, Beijing has nothing to gain from resolving the crisis.

As of November 2018, the U.S. and North Korea have announced a second summit between Trump and Kim in 2019. North Korea has made initial moves toward shutting down some of its nuclear facilities and to allow some inspections, but these gestures are token and do not seriously affect Pyongyang's nuclear capability.

The U.S. has abandoned talk of "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization" and accepted the North Korean goal of completing denuclearization by 2021. Major U.S.-South Korean military exercises continue to be suspended, although smaller scale training exercises are ongoing. The U.S. has continued economic sanctions, but has done little to stop China's de facto relaxation of those sanctions.

North Korea continues, successfully, to play for time. Perhaps it hopes that regime change in Washington will change U.S. policy. Barring any improvement in Washington's leverage or a broader agreement with China that resolves the North Korean issue, the U.S. will find itself with no choice but to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. That acceptance will be more palatable if Kim drops his provocative and bellicose behavior and if North Korea agrees to some sort of regular inspection of its nuclear facilities.

There is no prospect of North Korean denuclearization until Pyongyang identifies all its nuclear facilities and the size and location of its nuclear and missile arsenal. To date, there is no indication that such a declaration is forthcoming.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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