Talks held between North Korea and the United States, the first substantive meeting between both sides since February, ended without progress on Oct. 5. But there is a sense of urgency on North Korea's part for some sign of movement as its self-imposed year-end deadline for action in the impasse approaches. With U.S. national election campaigns in full swing, Iran on a path to escalation and U.S. President Donald Trump facing growing domestic political issues, the North may be calculating it should press its advantage while it can. Just as it is highly aware that the White House wants to avoid a disruptive confrontation, North Korea is also aware of the unique opportunity that Trump’s dealmaker persona offers.
From Pyongyang's point of view, the time appears ripe to push the United States for concessions in their negotiations over the North Korean nuclear program, although Washington appears reluctant to offer any.
After weekend talks in Stockholm ended, lead North Korean negotiator Kim Myong Gil said they broke down because the United States did not make an adequate offer. The U.S. side characterized the dialogue differently, however, saying negotiators had "good" discussions about implementing pledges that Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed on during their 2018 Singapore summit, noting that Sweden had invited them to return in two weeks for a second round of talks. The North Korean Foreign Ministry fired back, accusing Washington of using the dialogue to keep its "domestic political events on schedule." Pyongyang clearly underscored its interest in adhering to the end-of-year deadline, with an implicit threat that absent a U.S. compromise, it could resume disruptive tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons in 2020.
Pyongyang's reaction to the latest round of talks shows that the United States did not come prepared to offer a deal that it found acceptable. Earlier leaks suggest that the White House may be considering trading a substantial suspension of sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the North halting enrichment and closing a key nuclear facility. North Korea may be expecting, however, that its hiatus from long-range missile testing alone merits some form of reward. In short, North Korea wants the United States to buy its silence.
Working-level outreach, by definition, is where thorny issues get tackled — and there are many remaining between the two sides.
What Both Sides Want
North Korea has long demanded that it receive some form of security guarantee before it would offer any concessions on denuclearization. But given the substantial U.S. military presence in neighboring South Korea — and across the Asia-Pacific more broadly — it would be difficult, if not impossible, to truly make a meaningful guarantee. The United States wants North Korea to commit to a clear road map toward denuclearization — a step Pyongyang has been reluctant to make. Given North Korea's long efforts to build up its nuclear program and its vulnerable regional position, it is unlikely that North Korea will substantively denuclearize. What's left would be a process of compromise on both sides that would involve interim, trust-building measures. This would be a framework of management, not full resolution, of the nuclear issue.
What Could Happen Next
There are less than three months to go before North Korea's deadline. This apparent failure at kick-starting a sustained process, though, by no means indicates that talks are over. Working-level outreach, by definition, is where thorny issues get tackled — and there are many remaining between the two sides. Importantly, the two negotiating teams appear to have discussed substantive issues, a sign that Pyongyang may be empowering its negotiators to make decisions — at least in some limited fashion — thus creating openings for compromise. It will be important to watch whether the purported next round of working-level talks goes ahead in two weeks, as the United States hopes. In the meantime, North Korea will certainly increase the pressure on the United States in hopes of greater White House flexibility, perhaps by continuing the missile tests that it has been firing off in recent months.