Will North Korea denuclearize?

President Trump’s summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, didn’t produce much.

Maybe President Trump was too confident in his ability to negotiate with the North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Or maybe that confidence pushed the process along this far, and it was doomed to go anywhere from here.

Maybe President Trump’s first summit, in which North Korea gave up little in order to receive worldwide recognition, doomed this summit to failure.

Maybe negotiating with North Korea is doomed to failure.

Is denuclearization possible?

Let’s take a look.

Denuclearization is not likely. Ever.

North Korea has too much invested in their program

Kim, his father, and his grandfather spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars developing a nuclear program that they believe will keep their regime in power. No nation with advanced nuclear capabilities similar to North Korea’s has ever relinquished it.


Sanctions are considered a primary force to bring North Korea to the bargaining table, yet they could have the opposite effect, and leave Kim feeling more threatened and vulnerable. While under sanctions, Kim Jong-un has already conducted more missile and nuclear tests since he took power in 2012 than his father and grandfather combined.

a past record of violating agreements

North Korea has consistently violated past agreements under Kim’s father and grandfather, and Kim has shown no interest in doing much better.

US/South Korea alliance

President Moon (South Korea) doesn’t want problems with the north so the more hostile Trump sounds, the more the South Korea/US alliance is at risk, which is exactly what North Korea wants: to break that alliance, and make the US threats to defend South Korea seem unlikely.

Note: Geek out on some simple background information on the relationship between North and South Korea.

Denuclearization is a reasonable goal.

peace treaty could happen

After the end of World War II, Korea–formally a Japanese colony–was divided into two zones. The Soviets occupied the north, while the Americans occupied the south.

In 1948, each side formed its own government. In 1950, the north (with China’s help) invaded the south (supported by the US).

The war was ended with a cease-fire but no peace treaty, as the south held out hopes of unifying the Korean peninsula. The north has been looking to sign a treaty ever since. The treaty has been a negotiating point during the denuclearization process (get rid of nukes in exchange for a peace treaty, among other things).

Additionally, a younger generation of South Koreans show some willingness to put the past behind them, and may be willing to support a treaty.

the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea

North Korea and South Korea marched together in the opening ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Olympics, under a flag depicting a unified Korea.

President Trump’s unpredictability

Historically, the north has not negotiated in good faith: for example, they cheated on a 1994 nuclear agreement in which they agreed to limit nuclear enrichment.

Getting the North Koreans to seriously negotiate may require fear of the consequences if they don’t. Bennett, from RAND consulting, says a combination of sanctions and the fear that Trump might actually be crazy enough to start a war might push things along.

leaders meet

Kim asked South Korea leader Moon to visit the north for a first-ever leader-to-leader conversation.

sanctions are working

Trump’s strategy is to continue pushing sanctions on the north, including limiting North Korea’s ability to ship goods outside its borders by sea.

Sanctions got Iran to the table for nuclear talks during the Obama administration; perhaps they will do the same for a struggling North Korea.

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