Issues & Insights Vol. 19, WP2: North Korea Negotiations are not about Denuclearization, but the Future of Asia

March 15, 2019

Whatever results from the February Trump-Kim summit – a path towards denuclearization or a faux peace – the litmus test of a successful policy is whether it increases US and allied security while preserving steadfast American influence and credibility in Asia. 

United States policy towards North Korea has for decades been guided by the priority of denuclearization despite dramatic changes in political and material circumstances on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Pre-summit reports of the possibility of the United States opening liaison offices in North Korea and President Trump’s willingness to declare an end to the Korean War in Hanoi represented positive steps towards improving the US relationship with both actors on the peninsula. But the political step of transforming relations can only be sustained by pursuing a credible objective of arms reduction short of denuclearization and presenting a credible deal by encouraging political buy-in from Congress. Finally, the North Korean nuclear issue should be framed as a geopolitical problem so that policy objectives are embedded in a broader regional strategy. Denuclearization driven by US withdrawal or imprudent accommodation that erodes US credibility would be a strategic failure of US policy.