“If you step forward, you will be the first U.S. president to cross the border,” said Kim Jong Un through a translator to President Donald Trump on Sunday.
The two men stood at the Demilitarized Zone on the border of North and South Korea. That moment made history.
The question is: Will it have a significant impact on stalled negotiations?
Diplomacy between the two leaders seemed to have hit a roadblock since the Hanoi summit in February, which ended abruptly when the two leaders left Vietnam without a deal. The swirl of summitry that began in Singapore last year has, so far, resulted in little progress.
To put a finer point on it, North Korea is no closer to complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program than it was prior to the first meeting between Trump and Kim. For that matter, it is also failing to improve its egregious track record of human rights abuse.
Sunday’s last-minute meeting between Trump and Kim was prompted by a presidential tweet. This set into motion a photo op that handed Kim yet another legitimizing appearance on the world stage without having made any major concessions in negotiations.
The primary deliverable from Sunday’s meeting was a promise to resume working-level negotiations. While this is a positive development, it’s hardly a promise worthy of fanfare.
Kim is a brutal dictator—one who imprisons between 80,000 and 120,000 people in political prison camps, murders people in broad daylight for merely possessing a Bible, and restricts all of the freedoms that Americans hold so dear. That’s to say nothing of its illegal nuclear and missile programs.
Kim, no doubt, desires legitimacy. Every time the two leaders meet and Kim makes no concessions, he is emboldened to press the U.S. to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, and for that matter, a legitimate state—of which it is neither.
Following the historic meeting at the DMZ, there are now rumblings that the administration might be considering a “freeze for freeze”—essentially, North Korea freezing its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. lifting some of the tougher sanctions on Pyongyang.
This would essentially acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state, something that negotiators refused to do in previous negotiations.
This would be a mistake. A freeze-for-freeze would undermine the most successful pillar of the Trump administration’s North Korea strategy—the maximum pressure policy—and would fall short of legally-required standards that North Korea denuclearize prior to getting sanctions relief.
This is not the first time diplomacy has impacted the maximum pressure policy.
After the Singapore summit, Russia and China reportedly began easing implementation of their sanctions—sanctions that North Korea acknowledged helped bring them to the negotiating table in Hanoi. Kim would like nothing more than to see these sanctions lifted.
Now that the DMZ meeting has happened, the question is, “Where do we go from here?”
U.S. negotiators should use working-level dialogue to press North Korea to accept the legally-required definition of denuclearization and to lay out a step-by-step process to irreversibly dismantle its nuclear program.
And, rather than viewing human rights as an afterthought, the administration should press for improvements to human rights, recognizing that the Kim regime uses human rights abuses to retain power for itself and continue its nuclear and missile programs.
Going forward, the administration should articulate a comprehensive strategy where both national security and human rights challenges are addressed in tandem. It should refrain from high-level, diplomatic photo ops that bring us no closer to solving these problems.