The Trump Administration’s Goals For North Korea Talks Are Out Of Step With Reality.

The Trump Administration still doesn't have realistic goals for its negotiations with North Korea.

Yesterday on ABC’s This Week National Security Adviser John Bolton outlined the Administration’s position regarding negotiations with North Korea:

RADDATZ: OK, let’s back track a bit. At the Singapore summit, North Korea committed only to, quote, “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. How do you define that, how do they define that?

BOLTON: Well, again, they have committed to denuclearization in a variety of forms several times in writing, solemn international agreements that they have happily violated. We define denuclearization as meaning the elimination of their nuclear weapons program, their uranium enrichment capability, their plutonium reprocessing capability.

From the beginning we’ve also included chemical and biological weapons in the elimination of their weapons of mass destruction, this is important to us because of our deployed forces in South Korea.

It’s important to South Korea and Japan. And of course we want their ballistic missile program ended as well. That is –

RADDATZ: But they didn’t sign onto that.

Daniel Larison comments:

Bolton went on to say that North Korea could expect no sanctions relief until they had given up all of these things. Once again, North Korea is expected to give up everything the U.S. wants first before it can expect to see anything in return. These aren’t conditions that any government could accept, and Bolton has known this all along. These are conditions that are made to be rejected in order to provide a pretext for more punitive and aggressive measures. They are the same unreasonable demands for unilateral and complete surrender that the administration has made for the last 18 months, and with the inclusion of North Korea’s biological and chemical weapons programs they amount to Bolton’s so-called “Libya model” in all but name. The failure at Hanoi should have shown the administration that insisting on North Korea’s total disarmament was a dead end, but instead Bolton has taken full advantage of the breakdown in talks to make sure that diplomacy with North Korea won’t produce anything at all.

The insistence from Bolton and others in the Administration that the North Koreans had agreed to “denuclearization” at the Singapore summit is belied by both what the North Koreans themselves have said since then and on their behavior since that summit and, of course, more recently. In the weeks after the Singapore summit, for example, the DPRK took steps that made it obvious that there was no real agreement reached between Kim and Trump. For example, soon after it was reported that North Korea was increasing production of the fuel needed to make additional nuclear weapons and that it was concealing the existence of ongoing nuclear weapons research at secret facilities well hidden from both surveillance and, most likely, the ability of the United States to take the sites out in a military strike. Additionally, it became apparent in the days after the summit that the much-publicized destruction of the DPRK’s primary nuclear weapons test site, a much-hyped pre-summit event that was witnessed by American and other international journalists, was much less than met the eye and that the site could easily be rebuilt if needed in the future. Weeks later, we learned that the DPRK had also begun work on the construction of new ballistic missiles at yet another secret site.. Additionally, analysts who have seen satellite images say that the DPRK has made a second large nuclear reactor operational. This type of reactor is capable of making plutonium which is, of course, one of the main fuels used in the production of nuclear weapons. This new reactor can reportedly make four times as much plutonium as North Korea’s current reactor, which has been the source for the plutonium needed for its nuclear arsenal to date. Finally, in the wake of the summit in Hanoi that again appears to have been more hype than hope, Pyongyang appears to be making major repairs to a previously abandoned ballistic missile test facility that could be signs that they are planning either a new round of tests or a satellite launch.

More fundamentally, though, Bolton’s comments ignore the fact that the United States and North Korea have fundamentally different ideas of what “denuclearization” means. For the United States, it essentially means that the North Koreans would give up their nuclear weapons, their ballistic missile technology, and their research programs in both areas. In exchange, it appears that the United States has made what seem to be vague at best promises about sanctions relief and the grandiose promises that President Trump has made about the benefits that would result from to the North Korean economy if it opened itself to the world even though there’s no indication that Kim Jong Un or the leadership in Pyongyang want that kind of future for their country. For the North Koreans, “denuclearization” means that the United States would withdraw its armed forces from the Republic of Korea, and potentially Japan as well and that it would end the “nuclear umbrella” policy it has for South Korea and Japan that guarantees American reprisal for any nuclear attack on either nation. It’s quite obvious that neither nation would readily agree to either outcome. The DPRK is not going to give up its nuclear weapons because doing so would essentially be regime suicide, and the United States is not going to withdraw from South Korea or Japan not only because of the threat of the DPRK but also because it would mean handing a strategic victory to the Chinese.

As I’ve said in the past there are things that could be accomplished if negotiations between the United States and North Korea were approached realistically. For example, we could finally negotiate an end to the Korean War via a peace treaty that includes not just the DPRK and the United States but also China and South Korea. This treaty could conceivably include agreements that would reduce tensions along the Demilitarized Zone that would include the removal of troops on both sides that have spent the last 60 years and more on a hair trigger for war. Among other things, this would significantly reduce the risk to some of the most heavily populated areas of South Korea, which at the moment remain vulnerable to a North Korean military strike that could come with virtually no warning. Perhaps, this would make it possible for the United States to remove some of its forces in the future.

Developments over the past year also offer a guide to what talks with the North Koreans could realistically achieve. For example, tensions on the Korean peninsula, which have been on a razor’s edge since the end of the Korean War and ramped up significantly during the tit-for-tat exchanges that took place between President Trump and the North Korean leader throughout 2017, have calmed down significantly over the past year. Additionally, the relationship between North and South Korea appears to be better than it has been in several years during which the DPRK was engaged in provocative action such as firing missiles at a South Korean naval base and attacking a South Korean naval vessel. Making those changes permanent would be a good thing. However, as I have noted before (see here, here and here), if the United States continues to insist that the ultimate goal of these talks is the idea that North Korea will give up its nuclear arsenal, then all of this is doomed to fail.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Doug, the Trump administration has no goals. Bolton has goals. Maybe Pompeo has goals. But the only goal Trump cares about is scoring a point.

    In his desperate desire to score a point so he can tamp down his crushing insecurity, Trump has already groveled to Kim, abased himself, excused this monster’s murder of an American citizen, let Kim out of his box and elevated him to statesman status. I strongly suspect the only reason Trump walked away from Hanoi was because he couldn’t control his emotions as his consigliere sold him out to the House. Had Cohen not been on-camera we could well be evacuating US troops from the DMZ and demanding that SK pay the north reparations.

    There is not now, and there never will be, a Trump foreign policy. There may be a Bolton policy, but that will exist only in Bolton’s own mind, because he works for a mentally unstable cretin who will blow up any policy at any time if it means a short-term ego boost.

  2. Teve says:

    This post is giving me deja vu. It feels like it was already a post.

    (Not complaining, it’s an evergreen statement)

  3. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    So what? Trump fights the”enemdia” and owns the libturds. That’s what counts.

  4. Teve says:

    Trump did the same thing with North Korea that he did with the Democrats. He demanded everything he wants in exchange for very little.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Trump has a problem lots of rich, pampered Americans have: they think businessman tough is comparable to “I just blew my uncle apart with an anti-aircraft cannon,” tough.

  6. Kathy says:

    About the only thing El Cheeto can boast is he has lowered tensions with North Korea, after ratcheting them up in the first place.

    I’ve been thinking about Nixon a bit lately, because I’m reading about Watergate. The man was an un-remorseful criminal, yes, but he had a decent grasp of foreign policy and managed to accomplish a few things in that area (I’m less informed of his domestic policy), even taking into account the mess in Indochina (let’s be frank: everyone messed it up).

    Dennison is the exact opposite in that regard. Good thing he has no inherited big mess to take care of.

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “The Trump Administration still doesn’t have realistic goals for its negotiations with North Korea.”


  8. Joe says:

    It seems like what this administration wants for Korea is the same thing they complained about the Iran deal. Unless it accomplishes everything, there is nothing to accomplish and it should be scrapped. Perfect is the enemy of good.