In Brief

Why U.S.-North Korea Talks Failed Again

Denuclearization talks over the weekend ended in another stalemate, and it remains to be seen if negotiations will resume in the coming weeks.

What’s the latest?

Over the weekend, chief negotiators for the United States and North Korea gathered in Stockholm, Sweden, for their first in-depth talks since June, when President Donald J. Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un met at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

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Details of what exactly happened during the meetings remain unclear, but the North Korean negotiator expressed his displeasure, stating that Washington came to the talks “empty-handed” despite Kim’s demand that it approach negotiations with a “new method of calculation.” At the same time, the U.S. State Department described the talks as “good discussions” that would allow negotiators to make progress in the coming months.

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The United States also indicated that the Swedish government invited both sides to return for further discussions in two weeks, but a spokesperson for the North Korean Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang would not hold “such sickening negotiations” until Washington takes a “substantial step” to withdraw its “hostile policy.” 

Why are negotiators struggling to regain momentum?

The declaration signed by Trump and Kim during their 2018 summit in Singapore committed the two countries to work toward “complete denuclearization,” but they haven’t agreed on specifically what that means.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walks through a field with two military officials.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends the testing of a rocket launcher. Korean Central News Agency via Reuters

Media reports suggest that, at Stockholm, the United States softened its approach by proposing a three-year relaxation of UN sanctions on North Korean coal and textile exports in exchange for international inspections at the Yongbyon nuclear facility and possibly other nuclear sites. But the senior North Korean negotiator’s characterization of the talks suggests that Pyongyang rejected the U.S. proposals.

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The United States would likely be prepared to take other steps, such as opening liaison offices in each other’s capitals and issuing nonaggression statements designed to move the two countries toward a permanent peace, as Washington outlined in the Singapore declaration, in return for North Korean steps on denuclearization.

It’s been more than a year since the Singapore summit. Does Washington have anything to show for reopening talks with Pyongyang?

The good relationship between Trump and Kim has thus far not translated into improved government-to-government relations or progress on denuclearization. Kim has not yet fulfilled his commitments to Trump and, in recent months, North Korea has conducted a series of short-range missile tests that violate UN Security Council resolutions, as well as tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Additionally, the Trump administration’s proposals to relax U.S. policies perceived as hostile have not satisfied Pyongyang.

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What might be next on this front?

Correspondence between Trump and Kim would be sufficient to resume talks when both sides are ready. In the meantime, they will continue to pressure each other, with the United States likely doubling down on sanctions and North Korea conducting additional short-range ballistic missile tests.

With the U.S. election a little more than a year away, North Korea hopes that mounting domestic political pressure will lead Trump to make a concession to secure a foreign policy victory for his campaign. Washington will keep the door open in hopes that Pyongyang will agree to give-and-take negotiations to implement “complete denuclearization.”

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