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The Inside Story of Why Donald Trump’s North Korea Strategy Failed

North Korea
President Donald J. Trump shakes hands with Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un Sunday, June 30, 2019, as the two leaders meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

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 lettersexchanged 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.

Written By

Anthony W. Holmes was a 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.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Commentar

    January 20, 2022 at 6:49 pm

    N Korea is like a hot (radioactive) potato dangerous to everyone and it’s US policies that made it possible. Same like Saddam’s Iraq.

    US physical presence, brazen meddling and sheer provocations resulted in it casting a DEEP DARK, AND VERY DANGEROUS SHADOW over north-east asia and you have this dicey situation today. Ditto for middle east region. And now the north Europe region as well.

    Various US administrations deem themselves the right God to chart the destiny of north east Asia and guide them to the path leading to heaven, but in reality, only to confront the deathly spectre of more powerful endgames than either Hiroshima (uranium)or Nagasaki (plutonium)

    Future US administrations will continue the misguided policy of being neccesary to be the nanny and orchestrate all moves to guide the region only to have north east Asia moving closer and closer to the edge of the precipice.

    It will take Yellowstone supervolcano to blow to reverse the current (global) situation and save the world.

    Let’s hope recent Tonga eruption (500x more powerful than hiro) will lead to Yellowstone doing the same.

  2. DiogenesReborn

    January 20, 2022 at 8:21 pm

    C, I am not sure if I wish for you to get back on your meds, or if you are a child left alone in the basement without adult supervision. But a simplistic world view such as yours is either drug related or childish.
    Or you are a paid troll.
    Regardless of which of the three probable scenarios is the real one, it must be sad to be in your shoes.
    I like many of the articles on this site, but the posters are the most ridiculous set of bozos I have seen in years.

  3. Bankotsu

    January 21, 2022 at 12:42 am

    U.S. is okay with Israel, India and Pakistan having nukes, why it is whining about North Korean nukes? Seems silly to me. This is a stupid issue.

  4. Joe Comment

    January 21, 2022 at 2:34 am

    The main reason the pressure policy failed is that it lacked any definition of a politically realistic desired end state. What else was it supposed to accomplish if not to bring North Korea to talks? And then what was the US actually prepared to offer in the talks that might have a real chance of bringing progress?

  5. Joe Comment

    January 21, 2022 at 3:23 am

    Bankotsu: The big difference between North Korea and the other countries mentioned (besides the scale of its anti-social international behavior, which is arguable) is that India, Pakistan and Israel never joined the NPT, while North Korea joined and left it. Joining and leaving is a kind of free riding on the international system of nuclear material controls, and there’s a huge interest in discouraging it. But it’s an interesting argument. What if the US stepped back so countries like South Korea, Taiwan or even Japan could have nuclear arsenals?

  6. Joe Comment

    January 21, 2022 at 3:48 am

    Commentar: I think it’s very hard to make a serious argument as if the US is the root of all evil in Northeast Asia and should have ignored Japan’s 1941 attack on us, North Korea’s 1950 invasion of the South, or the 1993 nuclear crisis. But if your point is the US mishandled the 2002 nuclear crisis, I’d have to agree.

  7. Fnu Lnu

    January 21, 2022 at 10:09 am

    This analysis of why Donald Trump’s North Korea failed policy is flawed and incomplete. If there ever was a good lead-in for Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story,” this is it. Talking to North Korea was not the problem. The problem was that after the talks, Donald Trump proclaimed he’d solved the unsolvable issue no other president had been able to, then effectively muzzled the community looking at that issue, and moved on to other things. It was chalked up as a victory, put in a cabinet like a trophy, then ignored. Realistically, North Korea would never have given up what Donald Trump was really asking for. There is a lot more to the story that can’t be told, but the analysis above is just wrong.

  8. Chuck Fina

    January 22, 2022 at 1:32 pm

    I think some of the commenters here are ten centers from china. Wishing the U.S. goes to hell with an earthquake volcano? How about we track you down feed you to dogs after we make you watch while we nuke Beijing.

  9. Y. Lee

    January 24, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    Mr. Holmes,
    I’m sorry to tell you that I think your DoD boss didn’t tell you the detail about the summit.

    You’d better check out the White House meeting between President Trump and UN Secretary-General Guterres in Oct~Nov 2017.
    DPRKorea invited UN Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman after President Trump’s UN speech in Sept 2017.
    At the White House meeting, President Trump asked UN Under-Secretary-General Feltman to tell DPRKorea that he wanted to meet President Kim Jong-un in person.
    Feltman visited DPRK on Dec 5th 2017 and told DPRK President Trump’s message.
    And DPRKorea President Kim told ROKorea that he wanted to meet President Trump in person. That was the answer for President Trump’s message.
    President Trump made the summit idea, not DPRK.

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