2017 was the year of “fire and fury” in American policy toward North Korea. Pyongyang tested its first ICBM on July 4th, and its second a few weeks later. The first quarter of 2018 was looking similar before the election of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s President. A summit in Singapore, where I co-represented the US Defense Department, and Hanoi led many to believe change was coming. 2019 and 2020 became about not upsetting the apple cart and North Korean vacillation between peace rhetoric and spectacular displays of intemperance. We ended Trump’s term with talk of “love letters” exchanged with Kim Jong Un.
So In 2022, why are we in a similar place to 2018? North Korea continues its nuclear weapons modernization, evidenced by tests of innovative and dangerous missile systems and the continued operation of weapons research centers at Yongbyon and elsewhere. Seoul continues its fruitless and often degrading peace overtures, to which the Regime either does not respond or replies via messages from officials low enough in the Regime’s hierarchy to drive the insult home.
North Korea is still under sanctions, but Russia and China violate them, and South Korea keeps insisting we need to carve out exemptions or abolish them. There is regular talk of offering the North a unilateral peace declaration Pyongyang has not asked for.
Why are we in this position? Because something went wrong with our policy in 2018.
President Obama famously warned incoming President Trump that North Korea was his number one concern. President Trump took him at his word and oriented his incoming administration to mitigate that threat. In late 2016 while working for the Defense Intelligence Agency, I was invited to join the Office of the Secretary of Defense and lead a large DOD team to provide options to the incoming Trump Administration. I remained a special advisor for North Korea until the end of the Trump Administration and worked closely with the most senior administration officials.
The President’s instructions were to think big and not be beholden to the past. No one wanted war, but we all understood Pyongyang never believed any real punishment from the United States, China, or others was in the waiting. To put it simply, North Korea had learned to live with the current state of affairs, sanctions, and international pariah status, and was willing to incur even more pain to achieve its strategic goals.
My team produced dozens of draft proposals for the National Security Council. After a flurry of meetings, the President’s aides whittled them down to 3. The President selected what came to be known as the Maximum Pressure Campaign. Simply put, it was the policy of the United States that we would use every element of national power on North Korea and its enablers to make it understand that nuclear weapons made it less secure, weakened its standing, denied it its goals, and increased the likelihood of conflict.
It was sanctions, rhetoric, targeted asphyxiation, and implied risk. And it worked. For a while.
More than a dozen countries that had diplomatic relations or economic relations with Pyongyang closed or reduced North Korea’s presence. These countries told us they understood we were “taking North Korea seriously now.” When meeting with foreign representatives, we would often ask “do you want to be friends with North Korea, or do you want the U.S. wondering why you are cozy with them?” Sanctions enforcement was among the most strict it had ever been. North Korea felt the pressure.
But our successes bred concern and political theater. Some in Congress were convinced we wanted war. One time when I was in Seoul, a U.S. servicemember asked me bluntly if he should send his family home before the shooting started. The American media, hostile to anything President Trump did, ran articles parroting North Korea propaganda.
In May 2017, South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in replaced the disgraced and impeached Park Geun-hye. While the election was never explicitly about North Korea, there was no doubt that it was a factor in the public’s choice. During a meeting with a senior Moon advisor, he told me “there will not be another Korean War.” When I pointed out that North Korea did not need Seoul’s permission to start a new one, he slowly repeated the line for emphasis.
Then in 2018, it all came undone. The same North Korean despot who had spent a year promising nuclear strikes on the American homeland and at one point even praised assassinating U.S. political leaders in state media, suddenly became interested in a summit. One of Moon’s envoys traveled to the White House to convey Kim Jong Un’s willingness to meet.
Many people, myself included, strenuously warned the White House that if we agreed to meet Pyongyang would fall back into familiar patterns and beat us with experience. It would say all the right things. It would make the U.S. negotiate with itself – a skill it mastered over decades of practice. By continually operating at the upper limit of bellicose rhetoric, North Korea could invite and receive concessions if it lowered the volume even a little, and demanded and receive rewards just for agreeing to talk. North Korea would threaten to walk away, and we would reward it for not doing so. For the longer negotiations drag on, the more reaching an agreement – any agreement at all – becomes the goal, rather than getting to a good outcome.
We warned that our friends and competitors were watching for any sign that our determination with North Korea was waning. If we softened now, they would see a green light to resume relations. North Korea’s “no questions asked” trade policies are unfortunately attractive to many.
I said explicitly that we should not have a summit with North Korea until it needed relief more than we wanted to talk.
But the President did agree to talk, North Korea fell back into old patterns, and two years of effort was undone.
Anthony W. Holmes was the special advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021. He co-represented the Department of Defense at the first summit between the United States and North Korea in Singapore. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any agency. He currently lives in Florida.