Rumors of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ill health has reinvigorated discussion amongst international affairs experts on how the U.S. should handle North Korea. Although the issues of peace and denuclearization have dominated recent talks between Washington and Pyongyang, the military threat North Korea poses to the U.S. has grown more severe in recent years. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump touts his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as being "very good." In the past, Trump has also characterized the bilateral summits he and Kim attended in 2018 and 2019 as symbolizing improved relations between the two countries. However, despite Trump's assertions, the overall state of U.S.-North Korean affairs has not meaningfully changed. Negotiations concerning a possible peace treaty have not lowered overall hostilities. Furthermore, North Korea's threat to deliver an unwelcome "Christmas gift" to the U.S. in December, as well as the launch of a series of short-range missiles in March and April, signal the regime's intent to follow through with Kim Jong Un's vow to continue developing North Korea's nuclear program and to possess a "new strategic weapon" soon.

The inability of the U.S. to advance its chief goals of peace and denuclearization in the Korean peninsula points to a more significant problem with U.S. foreign policy since the onset of talks with the North Korean regime beginning in 1994. The repeated collapse of negotiations and the breaking of agreements between the U.S. and North Korea suggests that administrative inconsistency has obstructed both countries' efforts to reach a lasting consensus. Except for the escalation of sanctions, each U.S. administration, beginning with Clinton’s, has had a vastly different foreign policy stance regarding North Korea. The U.S. government’s ability to de-escalate military tensions and prevent North Korea from proliferating nuclear weapons would be strengthened if the U.S. maintained a more consistent approach to negotiations on these issues.

Take, for instance, the Agreed Framework deal made during the Clinton era. The breakdown of its various agreements gave North Korea legal justification to retreat from many of its conclusions regarding peace and denuclearization. Moreover, the Agreed Framework had few enforcement mechanisms. That being said, North Korean officials still understood the agreement to be legally binding. U.S.-North Korean relations were nowhere near perfect before the Bush administration assumed control of negotiations in 2001––but its decision to renege on the Clinton administration's promise to lift heavy oil sanctions and provide two light water reactors (LWRs) has proven disastrous for later attempts at negotiation.

The Bush administration's abrupt return to big stick diplomacy, in stark contrast to the relatively conciliatory approach of the Clinton administration, ended negotiation efforts that were previously gaining momentum. The U.S. never intended to act on the Agreed Framework, believing that Kim Jong Il’s regime would ultimately fail, but it did mean to use the Agreed Framework to buy time. In contrast, in his 2002 State of the Union address, U.S. President George W. Bush called North Korea part of an "axis of evil," and Vice President Cheney reportedly declared in a White House meeting on North Korea in December 2003: "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it." Further, the Bush administration argued that the Agreed Framework was binding only with the executive––that is, the president––and therefore could also be broken by the executive. It thus came to little surprise that the administration decided to break the agreement. Affronted by these measures, North Korean officials issued an official statement announcing their country's withdrawal from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, which claimed that bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should not have the authority to criticize North Korean actions without also laying some of the blame at the U.S.' doorstep. Ignoring their own noncompliance with the NPT’s requirements, North Korean officials also argued in the withdrawal statement that the IAEA's failure to point out the U.S.' administrative inconsistency proved their claim that they required nuclear weapons to protect themselves against U.S.-led attempts at interference.

There is a sense, then, in which the U.S. finds itself in a catch-22: for no matter how the U.S. government approaches North Korea about peace and denuclearization, it is always possible for Pyongyang to simply respond: "Look what you made us do." U.S. officials thus have no choice but to start all over again, trying to identify how they could have acted differently to avoid the outcome they received. And in the meantime, save for escalating sanctions, the U.S. continues to be inconsistent in its application of legal and diplomatic measures to the threat posed by the North Korean regime––both to itself and the international community. The dissolution of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in 2006, as well as the stall of the so-called "Six-Party Talks" between Russia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, and the U.S. since the end of the Bush administration in 2008, are illustrative of this point. Quite simply, Pyongyang had little remaining trust in negotiation processes involving the U.S. in the early 2000s and refused to cooperate further. Rather than deterring the North Korea from testing missile weapons and pursuing nuclear proliferation, inconsistent attempts to compel the country to denuclearize and retract its military force have only exacerbated security concerns on the Korean peninsula; and thus, from the North Korean perspective, responses signaling its desire to act free from outside interference are entirely justified.

The Obama administration's foreign policy approach, involving a "pivot toward Asia," the decision to "lead from behind," and an emphasis on "strategic patience," suggested a vast departure from the strategy of the Bush administration. Secret talks were held with North Korean officials in which the U.S. attempted to ameliorate U.S.-North Korean relations and draw them back to the negotiation table. Yet this approach also proved ineffective, as the regime blithely continued to pursue its weapons program. Moreover, it also launched a series of cyberattacks on American businesses, most notably Sony Pictures. These events led Obama to warn North Korea in a speech delivered in 2014 at a U.S. military base in Seoul that the United States would "not hesitate to use our military might" to protect American allies. Nevertheless, the state of U.S.-North Korean relations remained largely unchanged during the Obama administration.

Administrative inconsistency continues to be a massive hindrance in the way of achieving denuclearization and peace with North Korea today. A 2017 Congressional report on "Nuclear Negotiations with North Korea" mentions Trump's verbal statements and tweets on the matter, which are dramatic and contradict each other. For instance, Trump tweeted in August 2017 that "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen," but later stated at a campaign rally in late September 2018 that he and Kim Jong Un "fell in love." Unfortunately, one U.S. official recently told CNN that negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea are "dead." Furthermore, the report quoted former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who stated in September 2017 that "we do not seek regime change, we do not seek a regime collapse, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, and we do not seek a reason to send our forces north of the Demilitarized Zone." This statement strikes a very different tone from that of previous administrations. Finally, the Trump administration's attempt to strike an overt bilateral agreement with North Korea harkens back to the Clinton administration, rather than extending the policies of the previous administration.

Unless the U.S. finds a way to maintain a consistent demand, the North Korean government will continue to avoid genuine engagement in denuclearization and peace talks. Although Trump and Kim have participated in three bilateral summits since 2018 and signed an agreement pledging to work toward "a lasting and stable peace" at the first summit, North Korea has not refrained from nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests since then. And in response to criticism that the regime has made no good faith efforts to uphold its end of the agreements, North Korean officials can all too easily claim that the U.S. stance concerning negations is confusing, hypocritical, and self-contradictory.

The bilateral summits held between the U.S. and North Korea in recent years have allowed the North Korean regime to gain status and military leverage without having to make any concessions or security guarantees. Now, as Trump focuses on his re-election campaign, his appetite to engage in peace and denuclearization negotiations has waned. In a half-hearted attempt to draw attention to his supposed friendship with Kim, Trump sent a letter to the North Korean leader, expressing his willingness to help the country battle the spread of COVID-19. Kim Yo Jong, Kim's sister and senior ruling party official, told news media that the letter was appreciated, but that the regime maintains that they have zero cases of coronavirus infections in the country. Such events demonstrate that if the U.S. wants to improve its ability to negotiate with North Korea, it will need to establish long-term policy leaders who are experts in U.S.-North Korean relations, and who are committed to ensuring that the threat it poses to U.S. security is finally resolved.


Kori Cooper is a J.D. candidate at Columbia Law School, an affiliate of the school’s Human Rights Institute, and a Davis Polk Leadership Fellow. She founded and leads “Black Voices on Greater China,” a project focused on amplifying Black voices and perspectives in the field of Chinese Studies.