What You Need to Know About Negotiations with North Korea

What You Need to Know About Negotiations with North Korea



A summit between President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un may take place in June 2018. Ultimately, negotiations with North Korea are the best way to reduce the threat the country’s nuclear weapons pose to the United States and its allies in the long-term. But the deal has to be progress for the United States, and Donald Trump has seemed far too willing to accommodate North Korean and Chinese demands.

A smart and tough deal with North Korea would include:

  • Specific and immediate steps to eliminate North Korea’s inventory of ballistic missiles capable of hitting parts of the United States.
  • A glide path to reducing and ultimately eliminating their arsenal of nuclear weapons. 
  • A verification regime to ensure North Korea does not cheat on any deal to counteract the North’s long history of violating nuclear agreements; and 
  • Security guarantees coordinated with U.S. allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan. 

Trump’s opening moves with North Korea are of concern. He’s done four things that put the United States in a weak negotiating position: 

  • Lowering his opening bid for negotiations every time he talks about the summit; 
  • Getting taken to the cleaners by China because he is so desperate to get a deal;
  • Sowing chaos and confusion before negotiations even begin; and
  • Alienating U.S. allies who are critical in securing a smart and tough deal with North Korea.

U.S. President Donald Trump has cancelled1 and then reinstated a planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to take place in Singapore on June 12, 2018. This would be the first time a sitting American president has ever met with the leader of this reclusive regime. The two are expected to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in an effort to negotiate a resolution to the ongoing tension between North Korea and much of the global community.

Despite the off-again, on-again nature of this summit by President Trump, North Korea poses a tremendous threat to the United States and its Asia Pacific allies, through both its nuclear and conventional arsenals, that must be addressed.

North Korea has spent years developing and testing nuclear weapons that threaten the region, including our allies, South Korea and Japan. Now, thanks to advances in its ballistic missile technology, North Korea has a functional nuclear weapon and inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of striking parts of the continental United States.2 Tensions between North Korea, the United States, and our allies have continued to increase with the North’s advancement of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. North and South Korea technically remain at war after the Korean War ended only in an armistice. In addition to nuclear weapons, North Korea has packed enough conventional firepower on its border to destroy the South’s capital, Seoul, in a matter of hours if war ever broke out.3 It also has a large arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. A war on the Korean Peninsula could lead to the deaths of millions of people on both sides of the border, including possibly hundreds of thousands of Americans.4 This threat must be dealt with through negotiations to denuclearize North Korea.

Americans of all stripes support diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. There is reason to believe North Korea, feeling squeezed and isolated by years of global sanctions, could negotiate a deal that lowers the nuclear threat to the United States and its allies in exchange for economic incentives. This would be similar to the Iran nuclear deal from which President Trump just withdrew. Ultimately, negotiations between the United States and North Korea, not fighting, is the best way to reduce the threat of North Korea.

A smart and tough deal with North Korea would include these things:

1. The elimination of North Korea’s inventory of intercontinental ballistic missiles that allow for a nuclear bomb to be launched on parts of the United States.

North Korea possesses an inventory of different types of vehicles that can deliver a nuclear warhead, including short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles. In recent years, it has developed new and longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that are thought to be able to reach parts of the continental United States. This means North Korea could conceivably hit parts of the country with a nuclear bomb if it is not stopped.5 This is a real and serious threat to the United States. North Korea has also been one of the most prolific exporters of its ballistic missile technology for its financial gain, presenting tremendous security concerns about who the country has and could sell this technology to.6

A smart and tough deal with North Korea would immediately eliminate the country’s ICBM capabilities as this presents a direct threat to the United States. While it is a positive step that North Korea has agreed to suspend its ICBM testing to allow for negotiations,7 the country has made no commitment yet regarding its ballistic missile program. The United States and its allies as well as the United Nations have imposed a series of sanctions on North Korea for both its nuclear and ballistic missile programs but these sanctions have not put a stop to the country’s advancement of these programs and many issues in getting other countries to comply with these sanctions and not do business with North Korea remain.8 Any deal the United States makes must aim to eliminate the threat of the country’s ICBMs and deal with the threat of all ranges of its delivery vehicles to protect America’s allies. 

2. Specific, measurable steps to eventually eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

North Korea has a significant stockpile of nuclear material to make a large number of weapons that could cause massive destruction and loss of life to our allies and conceivably parts of the United States. Some U.S. intelligence estimates have indicated that North Korea has enough fissile material for up to 60 nuclear warheads,9 with up to 20 of these warheads possibly already assembled.10 Of tremendous concern, a 2017 assessment from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly assessed that North Korea has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead that can actually fit onto an ICBM,11 which, if true, would be a significant step in giving the country the capability to hit parts of the continental United States. Since 2006, the country has also conducted a number of nuclear tests, which may be done to test the capabilities of its weapons.12

Any deal with North Korea must focus on laying out specific, measurable steps the country will take to eventually eliminate its arsenal of nuclear warheads, including the massive amount of fissile material it holds to continue to fully assemble new warheads. The ultimate end-goal of any negotiated deal should be the complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

3. A strong inspection and verification regime to prevent more broken promises.

North Korea has a long history of breaking its promises on nuclear deals. In 1994, North Korea negotiated an Agreed Framework under which the United States agreed to supply North Korea with light water reactors in exchange for freezing its nuclear program.13But the deal fell apart in 2002 when the United States alleged North Korea started its program back up again.14 In 2003, North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires non-nuclear weapons states to commit to not developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. In 2009, Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program that involved the United States also broke down after North Korea walked away. More recently, in 2012, North Korea promised to stop enriching uranium and halt new tests while allowing international inspectors to enter the country in exchange for humanitarian aid. But this promising development quickly fell apart when North Korea conducted a long-range missile test.15

This time, North Korea could try to avoid its obligations by playing on differences in definitions with the United States on what denuclearization would mean. For example, North Korea has threatened to cancel a possible summit over United States insistence that “unilateral nuclear abandonment” is the starting point for negotiations. Instead, North Korea wants denuclearization to apply to the entire Korean Peninsula, including the removal of U.S. conventional forces on the Peninsula, which could mean abandoning our South Korean allies.16

The United States should proceed with a strategy of not trusting but verifying in any negotiations regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. This must include an agreement by North Korea to declare the scope of its nuclear program and then an extensive architecture established to allow international inspectors to verify the scope of the North’s program and regularly inspect that the country is upholding its end of any deal. North Korea has a track record of talking, shaking hands with high-level diplomats, signing agreements—only to break them. President Trump has signaled eagerness to conclude some sort of deal, lavishing Kim Jong Un with praise for gestures like releasing American hostages held by North Korea. The United States should stay focused on measurable denuclearization, including a strong and transparent verification and inspection regime, and not be satisfied with symbolic gestures.

 4. Coordination with our allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.

The United States has strong partnerships with South Korea and Japan, who are essential negotiating partners. The United States has signed separate treaties with South Korea and Japan that provide for the mutual defense of our nations. Over 28,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea17 and around 40,000 in Japan18, in part to deter against North Korean aggression. They would bear the greatest human cost of any conflict with North Korea, which is why any security guarantees in these negotiations must be carefully coordinated with our allies.

North Korean demands that the United States withdraw its forces from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for ending its nuclear weapons program could further undermine the U.S. relationship with its allies. Any negotiations on a change in the U.S. force posture in the region must be coordinated with these allies. For now, the United States should not cave in to any North Korean demands that would alter our regional partnerships, including joint military exercises, before negotiations even begin.

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Four ways Trump has weakened our negotiating position:

The Trump Administration has said it wants to “quickly” achieve denuclearization in North Korea while ignorantly believing this can be done in one or a few meetings.19 There have been many agreements made with North Korea under previous U.S. administrations that the North has not abided by. To think this will be a quick process is to ignore the history of North Korean nuclear negotiations. Decades of sanctions and isolation of the North Korean regime have only caused the country to advance its nuclear weapons and ballistic programs, not dismantle them. North Korea will not just hand over its weapons without getting something in return and there is no history to suggest otherwise. This summit must be viewed as the beginning of a negotiation process not the end in and of itself. If the United States cannot address all of the key issues for a tough and smart deal than it needs to keep returning to the table until it can.

The Trump Administration has shown it will be unable to do this, however, if it continues to:

1. Lower the opening bid even before negotiations start.

The Trump Administration has claimed symbolic steps as “victories”20 before the Trump-Kim summit is even held, and in doing so is constantly lowering expectations for what the United States will accept as an outcome. The goal for a deal with North Korea is reducing the threat the country poses to the United States, not publicity for the President. It is possible that North Korea’s destruction of its nuclear test site may have been only a symbolic gesture, and at worse a total ruse. No nuclear experts (just journalists) were on site to verify whether the destruction was done fully and is not reversible.21 The release of three American hostages were seen as important confidence-building measures leading into negotiations, but these actions also underscore the brutality and capriciousness of the Kim regime. While the United States insisted first on complete denuclearization, later, they shifted to a series of steps, and now President Trump is setting expectations as simply getting to know Kim Jung Un. Negotiating against himself is no way to get a good outcome for America.

The United States must go into negotiations being clear on a realistic strategy with viable end-goals and strong demands for North Korea. By inflating small concessions as big “victories,” the United States is sending the wrong signal to North Korea that our biggest priority is achieving a deal the Administration can showcase and not a smart and tough one.

2. Let China run the show.

China continues to whisper in North Korea’s ear throughout this process. Not only is Trump ignoring China’s aggressive behavior in the region, but he is showering them with benefits in his interest in getting to this summit. The United States must be clear throughout any negotiations that it will not allow China to continue its aggressive actions toward the United States and our allies in the Asia Pacific region just to reach a deal with North Korea. China’s cooperation and leverage would likely be critical for an effective and sustainable deal with North Korea.22 However, China continues to aggressively threaten our allies over a number of territorial disputes, and has a history of malicious behavior toward the United States such as its unfair trade practices and cyber-attacks.23 Already, President Trump has signaled a willingness to not ban Chinese telecommunications company ZTE from doing business in the United States even though the U.S. Intelligence Community has said it presents a security threat to American consumers.24 While the President’s motivations for doing so are unclear, the United States must be careful not to make China the big winner in negotiations.

3. Sow chaos and confusion before negotiations even begin.

The Administration’s lack of a consistent strategy and messaging on North Korea has only served to create chaos and confusion instead of advancing peace. For example, the Administration’s mixed-messaging on whether it would be using Libya as a model for negotiations and what that means only served to reinforce North Korea’s long-standing fears that the United States is solely interested in removing the country’s leadership from power. Libya abandoned its much less advanced nuclear program in 2003; the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed by his own people following a U.S.-led military intervention in 2011. By mentioning Libya and then backtracking, at the very least it shows the Administration is divided when it comes to North Korea.  

Further, President Trump’s recent decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal has also contributed to the chaos and confusion surrounding negotiations with North Korea. This decision demonstrated that the United States might be willing to violate any deal it makes on countries’ nuclear weapons programs in the future and go it alone without our allies. The signal this sends to North Korea is unmistakable—what the United States agrees to today may, in fact, not be what the United States respects tomorrow. President Trump’s decision to walk away alone from the Iran deal, particularly when the United States and international inspectors agreed that Iran was not violating the agreement, sends a message to adversaries like North Korea that they cannot take the United States at its word in negotiations.25

 4.  Alienate America’s allies.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae In has been a critical partner to the United States pushing North Korea to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, in return, when President Trump cancelled the summit with North Korea he did not notify South Korea ahead of time.26 Further, his cancellation letter focused only on the discussions between the United States and North Korea, minimizing the roles of our allies.27

An effective and sustainable deal with North Korea can only be negotiated if our partners in the region are in lock-step with us. Any deal will likely have to involve changes to U.S. and international sanctions on North Korea and for that to work it requires U.S. partners who have imposed these sanctions to agree to do so. Keeping them in the dark on negotiations will only set up a deal for failure.


North Korea poses a tremendous threat to the United States and its Asia Pacific allies and tensions with the reclusive country over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs continue to increase. Ultimately, negotiations are the best option to reduce the threat of North Korea and maintain the security of the Unites States and its regional allies. A smart and tough deal with North Korea must include strong and transparent inspection and verification mechanisms to ensure the North is not able to cheat on any deal, be closely coordinated with U.S. regional allies who provide critical deterrence against North Korean aggression, and eliminate the capability of North Korea to hit the United States with a nuclear bomb. The United States must continue negotiations with North Korea until it is able to achieve this but it will not be able to do so if it continues to sow chaos and confusion, alienate our allies, over inflate achievements, and allow China to continue its aggression.

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End Notes

  1. United States White House, “Letter to Chairman Kim Jong Un,” May 24, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/ briefings-statements/letter-chairman-kim-jong-un/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=wh.

  2. William J. Broad et al., “This Missile Could Reach California. But Can North Korea Use It With a Nuclear Weapon?” The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/22/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-weapons.html.

  3. Anthony Cordesman, “The Other Side of the North Korean Threat: Looking Beyond Its Nuclear Weapons and ICBMs,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 16, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180319_North_Korean_Threat.pdf?1VsEASqI1yuaGdWdKkFHiW6PPQIfgN7P.

  4. Kathleen J. McInnis, Andrew Feickert, Mark E. Manyin, Steven A. Hildreth, Mary Beth D. Nikitin, & Emma Chanlett-Avery, “The North Korean Nuclear Challenge: Military Options and Issues for Congress,” Report, Congressional Research Service, Nov. 6, 2017, p. 18. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R44994.pdf.

  5. “Missiles of North Korea,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Missile Defense Project. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/dprk/.

  6. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “North Korea.” Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: http://www.nti.org/learn/countries/north-korea/delivery-systems/.

  7. Anna Fifield, “North Korea says it will suspend nuclear missile tests, shut down test site,” The Washington Post, April 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/north-korean-leader-suspends-nuclear-and-missile-tests-shuts-down-test-site/2018/04/20/71ff2eea-44e7-11e8-baaf-8b3c5a3da888_story.html?utm_term=.d45605faac41

  8. Eleanor Albert, “What to Know About the Sanctions on North Korea,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 3, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-know-about-sanctions-north-korea

  9. Joby Warrick, Ellen Nakashima, Anna Fifield, “North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say,” The Washington Post, August 8, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/north-korea-now-making-missile-ready-nuclear-weapons-us-analysts-say/2017/08/08/e14b882a-7b6b-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html?utm_term=.5e2a72a9ff38

  10. Hans M. Kristensen, “North Korean nuclear capabilities, 2018,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January 8, 2018, Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2017.1413062.

  11. Joby Warrick, Ellen Nakashima, Anna Fifield, “North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say,” The Washington Post, August 8, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/north-korea-now-making-missile-ready-nuclear-weapons-us-analysts-say/2017/08/08/e14b882a-7b6b-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html?utm_term=.5e2a72a9ff38.

  12. Hans M. Kristensen, “North Korean nuclear capabilities, 2018,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January 8, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2017.1413062.

  13. “Agreed Framework of 21 October 1994 Between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” International Atomic Energy Agency, Nov. 2, 1994. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at:  https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/infcircs/1994/infcirc457.pdf

  14. “Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” International Atomic Energy Agency,” Sept. 2, 2011. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at:  https://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC55/GC55Documents/English/gc55-24_en.pdf.

  15. Kelsey Davenport, “Chronology of U.S.-North Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy,” Arms Control Association. Accessed May 15, 2018. Available at: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron.

  16. Anna Fifield, “North Korea expands threats to cancel Trump-Kim summit, saying it won’t be pushed to abandon its nukes,” The Washington Post, May 16, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/north-korea-threatens-to-cancel-summit-with-trump-over-military-drills/2018/05/15/04a15a5e-5878-11e8-8b92-45fdd7aaef3c_story.html?utm_term=.004ce8629d6f.

  17. “Hearing to Receive the Testimony on U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2017 and the Future Years Defense Program,” United States Senate, Feb. 23, 2016, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/16-15_02-23-16.pdf.

  18. Kristen Bialik, “U.S. active-duty military presence overseas is at its smallest in decades,” Pew Research Center, Aug. 22, 2017. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/22/u-s-active-duty-military-presence-overseas-is-at-its-smallest-in-decades/.

  19. Steve Holland, “Exclusive: Trump – nuclear deal may take more than one meeting with North Korea’s Kim,” Reuters, May 31, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-trump-interview-exclus/exclusive-trump-nuclear-deal-may-take-more-than-one-meeting-with-north-koreas-kim-idUSKCN1IW2CQ.

  20. United States White House, “What You Need To Know About The President’s Victory For The World By Freeing Three Brave Americans,” May 10, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/articles/need-know-presidents-victory-world-freeing-three-brave-americans/.

  21. Elise Hu, “North Korea Demolishes Its Nuclear Test Site In A ‘Huge Explosion,’” National Public Radio, May 24, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/05/24/613465473/north-korea-demolishes-its-nuclear-test-site-in-a-huge-explosion.

  22. Eleanor Albert, “The China-North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 28, 2018, Accessed May 22, 2018. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-north-korea-relationship.

  23. Wayne M. Morrison, “China-U.S. Trade Issues,” Report, Congressional Research Service, April 16, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33536.pdf.

  24. Derek Hawkins, “Trump’s ZTE reversal flouts warnings from top national security officials,” Chicago Tribune, May 14, 2018, http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-trump-zte-reversal-national-security-20180514-story.html.

  25. “Pompeo Says Will Work To Strengthen, ‘Fix” Iranian Nuclear Deal,” Radio Free Europe, April 13, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/pompeo-trump-pick-secretary-state-says-will-work-strengthen-fix-iranian-nuclear-deal/29163468.html; David E. Sanger & Rick Gladstone, “Contradicting Trump, U.N. Monitor Says Iran Complies with Nuclear Deal,” The New York Times, Aug. 31, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/31/world/middleeast/un-nuclear-iran-trump.html.

  26. Joohee Cho and Hakyung Kate Lee, “South Korea ‘baffled,’ ‘very regretful’ over Trump’s cancellation of North Korea summit,” Reuters, May 24, 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/International/south-korea-baffled-regretful-trumps-cancellation-north-korea/story?id=55409572.

  27. United States White House, “Letter to Chairman Kim Jong Un,” May 24, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/letter-chairman-kim-jong-un/.