Failed 2018 Trump-Kim Summit And Biden’s Same approach: Time For US To Change Its Policy Towards North Korea – OpEd


On June 12, 2018, the President of the United States Donald J. Trump, and the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong Un held a historic summit in Singapore. This was the first-ever meeting of the sitting US president with the North Korean leader.

Before the meeting, the officials of the US and DPRK were engaged in a series of talks to mitigate differences and established a framework for the summit. Both leaders had exchanged comprehensive opinions on the issues related to the new US-DPRK relations and the establishment of an enduring peace regime on the Korean peninsula. They also discussed their difference on the primary issue of denuclearisation. After the summit, President Trump declared the summit as a triumph. “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took the office” he stated on Twitter, “ There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”.

Background: North Korean Nuclear and Missile negotiation

Since the 1990s, Washington has been trying to negotiate with Pyongyang to halt their nuclear and missile program. In 1985, North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty(NPT) as a nuclear-free state and allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) the inspection of its nuclear facilities. In 1992, the two Koreas signed The Joint Deceleration in which they agreed that they shall not manufacture, test, or use nuclear weapons. In February 1993, IAEA identified two undeclared sites suspected of possessing nuclear waste storage and demanded inspection. But North Korea rejected inspection and threatened that they would withdraw from NPT which marked the beginning of the first nuclear crisis of the state. After the series of talks between the US and IAEA on one side and North Korea on the other, the two sides signed the Agreed Framework in October 1994, which committed North Korea to remain the signatory member of NPT and freeze its plutonium production program which it started a year before.

Though the Agreed Framework had halted plutonium production North Korea continued its nuclear program and developed ballistic missiles of long range. In August 1998, North Korea tested its first long-range ballistic missile over Japan. President Bill Clinton’s administration conducted a series of negotiations aimed to eliminate the missile program of DPRK to which Pyongyang agreed in September 1999 in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions.

In October 2002, a new nuclear crisis began when North Korea confirmed the allegation of possessing a highly enriched uranium production program which was a clear violation of the Agreed Framework, the NPT, and the Joint Deceleration on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang issued a statement saying it was entitled to possess nuclear weapons and announced its withdrawal from NPT on January 11, 2003. Six-party Talks involving China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and the US began in 2003, which aimed at the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula but no progress was made. 

On October 9, 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon and also tested seven short, medium, and long-range ballistic missiles. These tests led the United Nations security council(UNSC) to impose strict trade sanctions against North Korea. In the meantime, the US also freeze dozens of North Korean foreign accounts with deposits of approximately $25 million. The Six-Party Talks resumed in February 2007 and they reached an agreement in which North Korea agreed to disable its nuclear facilities in exchange for the delivery of heavy fuel oil (to which the US previously agreed under the Agreed Framework) and the removal of US’s State Sponsors of Terrorism designations. North Korea shut down its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon but very soon they refused to allow IAEA inspectors to its facilities because of the slowing down of benefits from other countries. In 2009, North Korea resumed its nuclear program, launched a long-range rocket, and in response to the UNSC condemnation of the launch it announced its withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks. 

Following years of diplomacy with the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, after the death of Kim Jong-il, the US, and North Korea separately announced an agreement in which North Korea agreed to the long-range missile testing moratorium, nuclear testing moratorium, allowed IAEA inspectors to the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. But, the new movement of US-DPRK talks terminated with North Korea’s launch of an earth observation satellite in April 2012, which was against the terms of the agreement. Diplomacy stalled for several years and the Obama administration expanded unilateral and international sanctions in hopes that the regime will return to the negotiation table but, in the meantime, North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2013 and again in 2016. 

High tensions in 2017 and rapprochement in 2018

President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and adopted the policy of “maximum pressure” towards North Korea which includes continuous Twitter threats, ratcheting up economic sanctions, and giving threats of preemptive strikes and nuclear war in hopes that Pyongyang will agree to the denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula. On July 4, 2017, North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile(ICBM), Hwasong-14, which was capable of reaching New York. On September 2017, Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test which it claimed a hydrogen bomb. Due to these developments in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile arsenal, Trump re-designated North Korea as a State Sponsors of Terrorism and led the UNSC to pass the resolution that banned up to 75% of North Korea’s export as well as most of its imports. The two leaders also exchanged antagonistic public insults with Trump calling Kim Jong-un a “little rocket man” while Kim calling Trump a “dotard” and said “he[Trump] made unprecedented rude nonsense one has never heard from any of his predecessors. A frightened dog barks louder.”

In 2018, after months of tensions between North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un accepted the invitation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to participate in the 2018 Olympics that were held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. North Korea sent a high-level delegation to the Olympics which includes Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong who said that her brother welcomed the restoration of Inter Korean relations. After that, the South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-Young, along with the delegation, met Kim Jong-un and reported that Kim said “DPRK would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons if military threats against North Korea were dissolved.” They also said that Kim declared that his country would cease ballistic missile and nuclear tests and they are willing to have an open-ended dialogue with the US to discuss the normalization of US-DPRK relations and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Chung delivered the invitation of Kim Jong-un to President Trump which he accepted unexpectedly in April 2018. 

The Singapore Summit of June 2018

On June 12, 2018, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un hold a historic meeting in Singapore where they express their desire to change US-DPRK relations. Both leaders issued a joint statement in which Trump pledged to provide security guarantees to DPRK while Kim reaffirmed his resolute commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. The four principles of the summit, which was signed by both leaders, were:

1. US and DPRK will establish new bilateral relations

2. US and DPRK will work together to build a peace regime on Korean Peninsula

3. DPRK will work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula

4. The two sides will cooperate in the recovery and repatriation of the remains of the American prisoners of war and missing in action during the Korean War

In the press conference, after signing the joint statement, Trump unilaterally announced that the United States will suspend the annual US-South Korean military exercise while putting good faith in the dialogue continuing with North Korea. He further stated that the two sides would continue negotiations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials.

Implementation of the agreement

In the weeks following the summit, it appeared that the two sides were looking at each other to take tangible measures to initiate the new relations. Pyongyang was looking at the US to take palpable steps to establish a peace regime while Washington was looking for North Korea to take concrete steps towards denuclearisation. But the summit did not contain any time frame or mechanism for the implementation of the denuclearisation process. The process of denuclearisation, the establishment of a peace regime, the removal of economic sanctions, and normalizing diplomatic ties were all left uncleared in the summit. The only progress towards implementing the agreement was made when North Korea delivered 55 cases of the remains of US military members who disappeared in the Korean War. Despite continued bromance between Trump and Kim, the two sides did not hold any work-related talks until January 2019.

On February 27, 2019, the second Trump-Kim summit was supposed to be held in Hanoi, Vietnam. But the summit ended without any agreement due to disagreements regarding North Korean denuclearisation measures in exchange for the sanction relief and the two leaders left early. Trump wanted complete denuclearisation while Kim wanted relief from UNSC sanctions, security guarantees, and the acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power. Because of different expectations, the two leaders walked out empty-handed. Shortly afterward, the US resumed its military exercise with South Korea which is known as Dong Maeng while Pyongyang initiated its missile tests in response to the military exercise. Kim issued the statement saying “they completely rattled us”, and further stated that this joint exercise is the evidence of Washington’s open hostility towards Pyongyang. He also announced that due to US policies to completely “strangle and stifle the DPRK”, there is no reason for North Korea to continue its nuclear and missile testing moratorium. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon also issued a statement in which he labeled the historic summit an empty promise and accused Washington of hypocrisy. 

Lessons learned and prospects

For all the rhapsodizing about his relationship with Kim Jong-un, the efforts of President Trump failed. From the claim that he has formed “a very, very good relationship” with Kim to the public musing that “we fall in love”, Trump failed to translate his relationship into a comprehensive nuclear deal. And if he thought he could then he was mistaken. In this world of realpolitik, Kim could never do personal favor to the US President while compromising his country’s nuclear weapons. After receiving numerous threats from US presidents about nuclear war, preemptive strikes, or Trump’s threatening to “destroy North Korea” in his address to the UN General Assembly, Kim Jong-un could not accept a deal that jeopardizes his nation’s security. If Washington has learned anything from these past diplomatic efforts and negotiations with Pyongyang then it should be to give up the vision that it could ever provide North Korea enough incentives to denuclearize. 

Under Biden’s Presidency, US policy towards North Korea is; “The US will engage in a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with North Korea with the goal of achieving its eventual complete denuclearisation.” Again, the US is repeating the same mistake. The US needs to change its strategic policy from denuclearisation to the limitations on the size of nuclear weapons and missiles of North Korea. 


Leaders of North Korea starved their people to the death to possess nuclear technology and other military capabilities equivalent to the US just to ensure their survival and deter any kind of military threats from Washington. And there is no way they are giving up their nuclear or missile arsenal. Thus, the US needs to shift its policy away from denuclearisation and focus on constraining, not eliminating, the nuclear and missile arsenal of North Korea. 

Atiqa Tariq is a student of BS International Relations at International Islamic University Islamabad, with areas of Interest in International politics, peace and conflict studies, Asian and African studies.



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