By: Nate Kerkhoff

The stage is set for the second Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit to take place in February amid mutual suspicions and vague declarations from previous negotiations. The two sides are currently at a diplomatic impasse as North Korea maintains that it has made appropriate concessions and is seeking relief from crippling economic sanctions as part of an incremental diplomatic process.

Conversely, US Vice President Mike Pence recently stated that North Korea has not made substantial moves to eliminate its nuclear program. He has reaffirmed the US position that North Korea must denuclearize before receiving any sanction relief. Thus if the historic June 2018 Singapore meeting between the two leaders served as the foundation of United States-North Korea relations, there is certainly a lot of room to build.

The Singapore Declaration contained only four points and gave no details for achieving them. The Pyongyang Declaration from the September 2018 inter-Korean summit does contain a clause calling on the North to dismantle its Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and the Yongbyon nuclear reactor under the supervision of experts in return for “corresponding measures” from the United States. However, it does not identify these measures.

Many observers believe President Trump will offer some form of limited sanction relief. But in the backdrop of vague summit declarations, stagnated diplomacy and overall lack of trust, the United States clearly needs a recalibrated strategy to regain leverage and ensure negotiations from the second summit in order to yield substance-driven results.

Fortunately, groundwork for this exists. While imperfect, observers believe it is up to the US to be pragmatic and build on two components that are already developing a structure within the North Korean diplomatic framework, humanitarian aid and inter-Korean cooperation.

Humanitarian Aid

The issue of humanitarian aid began to crescendo in 2018 through attention to the dire state of North Korean citizens as strict enforcement of UN sanctions cut severely into imports and prevented nearly all organizations from reaching the country. Finally, in late December, American senior envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun announced certain sanction exemptions for items and workers. Already in January, some groups have resumed suspended operations in North Korea.

Article 25 of UN Sanctions Resolution 2397 states exemptions can be granted on a “case-by-case basis.” The United States should rigorously review certain cases and integrate them in negotiations. Instead of pairing only economic measures with North Korean denuclearization steps, the United States should offer packages. Along with easing industry-specific sanctions in areas such as textiles and seafood trade, the United States can empower aid organizations as well.

For the most effective results, it must first focus on quantifiable objectives, such as vaccinations, nutritional supplements, and infrastructure for people with disabilities. This can then lay the groundwork for eventual inclusion of the more egregious human rights abuses committed by the North Korean state.

Integrating these two dimensions would be beneficial for the US’s negotiating position. Washington could frame the narrative that it is helping the suffering North Korean people in the areas of health and finance, implicitly highlighting the shortcomings of the regime. Such measures would effectively put the political onus on Pyongyang. If the US could skillfully link the sanction relief North Korea desires with greater access to apply humanitarian aid, it would make it more difficult for Pyongyang to complain about the lack of corresponding measures.  

In terms of long-term gains, leading with humanitarian aid would demonstrate good faith and provide opportunities for engagement at the local level. Those with past experience highlight the perceptible benefits of interaction between North Korean citizens and outsiders. Though aid workers do not receive full access to the country, a firm commitment to improving the lives of North Korean citizens, even as diplomacy fluctuates, can be regarded as much-needed confidence-building measures from the US.  

Inter-Korean Projects

Inter-Korean projects could serve as rough blueprint for targeted sanction relief. The Moon administration has been a relentless advocate for peace on the peninsula through engagement. This includes faithfully playing the mediator role between Pyongyang and Washington. Through these efforts, South Korea has been able to maintain the trust of both governments.

The leaders in Seoul recently approved a budget plan for six inter-Korean projects, and has been working tirelessly to create the conditions for progress. Co-operating with ongoing South Korean ventures means the United States would be collaborating with a third party that has already been carrying out exchanges with North Korea on the ground at the civilian and military level. In the still early stages of relations with North Korea diplomacy, it is advisable for the US to cooperate with a trusted partner that has a better lay of the land.  

Granting certain exemptions for joint ventures to clear the way for railway speculation and the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex and Geumgang Resort is a practical step. Under supervision of an ally, these operations allow limited funds to flow into North Korea in a controlled environment. A grand vision may involve the United States partnering with South Korea to develop railway projects as a way to access areas in need of humanitarian assistance.

Seoul has been an invaluable resource throughout the diplomatic process, and it is in the United States’ interest to leverage this alliance during negotiations with North Korea.

Challenges

Using the current structure for a negotiating framework is not without challenges. South Korea feels more pressure to achieve short-term results with North Korea than the United States does. This potentially exposes a fissure in the allies’ relationship that Pyongyang is hoping to exploit. Cases such as South Korea reportedly not reporting oil shipments to the North that are banned by sanctions to the UN highlight this obstacle.

This requires extra vigilance between the two allies. The US-South Korea working group has been productive in connecting each respective country’s visions for interactions with North Korea. However, it will take persistent efforts by both sides to maintain a united front in the face of North Korean demands.

Humanitarian aid is not a panacea either. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, co-editor of nkeconwatch.com, points out that while the North Korean economy has not been booming by any standards, it is not on the brink of collapse as it was in the 1990s. Yet, year after year, North Korea receives international food aid while the government has been building tourist attractions and luxury apartments. As is the case of inter-Korean projects, it is inevitable that some aid materials and money will flow up to the state.

The United States must be prepared to make concessions when needed to spur diplomacy, and part of this is anticipating unpleasant truths such as the North Korean regime benefitting monetarily from aid and joint ventures.

The second summit between Trump and Kim will determine the direction of relations between their respective countries. Beginning with these measures would allow the United States to maintain control over sanctions while providing true economic incentives and positioning itself for further negotiations. Taking advantage of the partial structure already in place may be the most stable option while diplomacy is still in its delicate state.  

Nate Kerkhoff holds an MA from Yonsei Graduate School for International Studies in Seoul, and is a Young Scholar at the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute