The United States and North Korea have faced a stalemate around the resumption of denuclearization negotiations in the months following the inauguration of the Biden administration. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of those who expected North Korea to welcome Biden with provocations, North Korea has refrained from crisis instigation as a means by which to break the stalemate. The Biden administration’s affirmation of the Pyongyang Declaration and offers for dialogue have gone unanswered in Pyongyang, despite the Moon Jae-in administration’s efforts to jumpstart talks. Even if the United States and North Korea return to negotiations, the fundamental impasse between the two countries over North Korea’s denuclearization appears impossible to overcome.
North Korea set its sights on nuclear development decades ago and has defined their nuclear program as a “treasured sword” essential to securing regime survival. As part of Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power, he praised his father and grandfather for leaving North Korea a nuclear legacy and enshrined North Korea’s nuclear status in the preamble to the DPRK constitution. At the height of U.S.-North Korea tensions in September of 2017 following President Trump’s fiery UN speech threatening North Korea’s annihilation, Kim stated that Trump’s speech had “convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last.”
Despite Kim’s shift to summitry in 2018, North Korea has not abandoned its commitment to nuclear weapons as a powerful guarantor of the regime’s survival. Most recently, Kim affirmed at the 8th Workers’ Party Congress North Korea’s intention to remain a “responsible nuclear weapons state.” The 8th Workers’ Party Congress’s review of diplomacy with the United States acknowledged the prestige benefits that accrued from summitry but did not mention Kim’s pledges at Panmunjom and Singapore to pursue “complete denuclearization.” During preparatory talks for the Hanoi Summit in 2019, it became clear in response to U.S. probing that Kim had not authorized negotiators to even discuss the nuclear issue. A logical conclusion is that Kim was either never serious about his pledge of complete denuclearization or that he was more than willing to trade partial rather than complete denuclearization for relief from international sanctions.
There are arguments that North Korea’s commitment to nuclear status is instrumental rather than existential. These arguments focus on North Korea’s perception that the U.S. “hostile policy” is the main source of conflict with North Korea and that a U.S.-North Korea rapprochement will break the impasse. But this will only be the case if the United States tacitly accepts North Korea as a nuclear state, since the premise underlying North Korea’s denuclearization is that it should be pursued mutually through arms control talks. Détente, not denuclearization, is North Korea’s goal, while the United States continues to conceive of détente in exchange for denuclearization as parallel end goals that would be achieved through an extended negotiating process.
Under these circumstances, the critical failure of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review from North Korea’s perspective came when he affirmed denuclearization as the main objective of his administration’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea, using instruments of “diplomacy and strict deterrence.” But there is not a viable diplomatic pathway to bridge the gap between North Korea’s insistence that the country be treated as a nuclear state and the stance of the United States and the United Nations that North Korea cannot be accepted as a nuclear state.
Instead, both the United States and North Korea continue efforts to shape the other’s security environment to force concessions prior to negotiations rather than to define a diplomatic solution involving quid pro quos at the negotiating table. To achieve this objective, North Korea’s main tools remain its obduracy, the threat to manufacture a crisis, and the political fatigue of its adversaries. As a precondition for making an agreement, Kim indicated a willingness to sign only “when it contains fair clauses which conform to the interests of both sides” and demanded a new “way of calculation,” or an unspecified concession, from the United States in his April 2019 Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) speech, his first major speech following the Hanoi negotiating failure.
The North continues to make demands for various concessions around the U.S.-ROK joint military exercises and to wait for the Republic of Korea to make tangible economic concessions to jumpstart inter-Korean relations. The threat to instigate a crisis remains a standard North Korean tactic, but resort to such tools is inhibited by the North’s own internal economic difficulties and extensive political and economic dependency on China. Until the Biden administration waters down its demands for the North to pursue denuclearization or reframes talks to exclude denuclearization as the main focus, North Korea will remain obdurate in its unwillingness to pursue meaningful diplomatic negotiations with the United States.
In the meantime, the United States anticipates North Korea’s economic desperation as a potential driver for the reopening of negotiations on the premise that North Korea will finally realize that its nuclear capabilities have become a liability rather than an asset to the regime’s survival. North Korea’s economic desperation could drive North Korea back to the negotiating table, even despite Kim’s desire to return to negotiations from a position of strength.
But the negotiating record of the 1990s suggests that North Korea’s weakness itself may become a major obstacle to substantive negotiations. At that time, North Korea demanded economic assistance for its participation in negotiations but refused to accept the principle of reciprocity or quid pro quos as part of its negotiations approach to the nuclear issue.
The marriage of North Korea’s economic distress and the Biden administration’s possible interest in maintaining effective channels for crisis communication with North Korea could generate space for U.S.-North Korea talks, but it remains to be seen what scope or form such talks might take. In his May 21st press conference with Moon this year, Biden softened his stance regarding a possible meeting with Kim while insisting that denuclearization and human rights concerns remain at the center of the U.S. approach. Despite U.S. disappointment with Kim’s implementation of the Singapore Declaration, Biden knows that Kim remains the only consequential decision-maker in Pyongyang. No serious U.S.-North Korean diplomacy can occur without Kim’s blessing, but that blessing is highly unlikely to extend to serious denuclearization, perhaps especially after the Hanoi failure. Absent a dramatic change in political circumstances in either Washington or Pyongyang, the impasse seems set to continue.