North Korea’s Strong Hand Against the U.S.

*A version of this op-ed appeared online on November 1, 2019 in The Wall Street Journal.

For Halloween, Kim Jong Un gave Donald Trump a trick, not a treat: North Korea fired two short-range missiles on Thursday toward the Sea of Japan. It was North Korea’s 13th weapons test this year—and the first since the Trump administration’s latest attempt to restart negotiations with North Korea quietly failed a few weeks ago. The first talks between the two sides in eight months broke down after only 8½ hours in Stockholm. The North Korean delegates stalked out, and Pyongyang subsequently said they wouldn’t resume the “sickening” negotiations with the U.S.

This might seem surprising since Mr. Trump has held three meetings with the North Korean dictator and has repeatedly expressed confidence that North Korea is eager to denuclearize. After his first summit with Mr. Kim, in Singapore in June 2018, Mr. Trump tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

In reality, North Korea poses a bigger threat than ever. It has continued expanding its nuclear and missile programs, and it has been testing short-range missiles that place U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan—along with those countries’ civilian populations—in far greater peril. How did Mr. Trump’s high-profile diplomacy with North Korea go so wrong?

The president committed a cardinal error of deal-making: He misjudged the person across the table from him. He thought that Mr. Kim had come to the negotiating table primarily because of the U.S. sanctions policy of “maximum pressure” and his own rhetoric warning of nuclear “fire and fury.” Mr. Trump assumed that Mr. Kim was negotiating from a position of weakness that left him ready to make major concessions.

In Mr. Kim’s mind, however, he was meeting with the U.S. from a position of strength. His nuclear and missile technology had reached the point where he could probably hit the American mainland with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. He no longer needed to stage provocative tests of his technology and thought he was now in a position to gain international acceptance for North Korea as a nuclear-weapons power. He never had any intention of denuclearizing.

In part because he pays little attention to his intelligence briefings, Mr. Trump didn’t understand his adversary’s agenda or mind-set. He thought that he could entice Mr. Kim with the prospect of economic development: In Singapore, the president even offered a slick presentation to show the glorious future that could lie ahead for North Korea (complete with seaside condos) if only it denuclearized.

But Mr. Trump didn’t grasp the essential difference between Vietnam, the site of his second summit with Mr. Kim, and North Korea. Vietnam’s communist leaders implemented Chinese-style economic liberalization only after achieving their dream of unifying the entire country. Mr. Trump faces a much more difficult task in trying to convince the North Korean tyrant to abandon the nuclear arsenal that he thinks keeps his regime safe and to open up his country while a freer, richer rival Korean state continues to prosper to his south. The Vietnamese were open to reform in victory, whereas Mr. Trump is asking Mr. Kim to make sacrifices while still vying for his survival.

Even if North Korea won’t give up its nuclear arsenal, the Trump administration could still try to reach an interim deal to freeze or roll back Mr. Kim’s nuclear-arms program in return for a partial lifting of sanctions. Experts still debate whether it would be worthwhile to grant North Korea targeted sanctions relief in return for pledges (verified by international inspectors) to cease further production of fissile material and to end all nuclear and missile testing.

But even if such a limited deal was possible before, it is far less likely now because Mr. Trump has raised Mr. Kim’s expectations so high by saying that the two leaders were “in love,” dismissing the North’s short-range missile tests (in violation of U.N. sanctions) as unimportant, unilaterally canceling joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and firing national security adviser John Bolton, whom North Korea viewed as a prime impediment to U.S. concessions.

Mr. Trump has emboldened Mr. Kim into thinking that he can achieve a significant lifting of U.S. sanctions in return for a small, symbolic step, such as announcing the shutdown of his Yongbyon nuclear facility—an important facility but only one of many in the North. Mr. Kim has shown no willingness to provide a complete inventory of his nuclear program or to allow international inspectors into his country—both prerequisites to verifying any agreement.

Mr. Trump’s almost certain impeachment in the House will only raise Mr. Kim’s confidence: He understands how politically imperative it will be for Mr. Trump to achieve a foreign policy “win” to distract from his deepening political woes. That helps to explain the intransigence of North Korea’s negotiators in Stockholm, where they demanded maximal sanctions relief in return for minimal concessions.

With Mr. Kim feeling more confident, the U.S. is left with only two bad options: Either give North Korea massive sanctions relief up front for little in return, or watch as Pyongyang returns to testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs—or tries lesser provocations such as a medium-range missile test over Japan or a satellite launch—after the expiration of the year-end deadline that Mr. Kim gave Mr. Trump to reach a deal.

Mr. Kim is probably calculating that a return to “fire and fury” is unlikely given Mr. Trump’s domestic troubles and reelection campaign and the fact that everyone else in the region has moved on; China, Russia and South Korea have no interest in ramping up tensions with North Korea. China implemented strict sanctions enforcement in 2017 but, following multiple meetings between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Beijing has relaxed the pressure considerably. According to a recent U.N. report, North Korea continues to circumvent U.N. sanctions on shipping and trade, with North Korean vessels hauling coal to China and engaging in ship-to-ship transfers with Chinese vessels to evade sanctions. Since Mr. Kim feels that he is negotiating from a position of strength, any interim deal he would strike wouldn’t put a real dent in his nuclear program—and wouldn’t be verifiable.

The North Koreans’ plan is to stall: show up, talk, break off talks; show up, talk, break off talks; and keep repeating as long as necessary to wait out Mr. Trump. And while they play this game, they are improving and expanding their nuclear and missile programs.

Mr. Trump’s incoherent approach to North Korea has left the U.S. with few good options. Unless he is prepared to make major concessions, the North may well resume major provocations in the new year. Mr. Trump claims to be a master deal maker, but he certainly hasn’t shown it in his relationship with Kim Jong Un.

Sue Mi Terry