If President Trump wants to have a successful summit with Kim Jong-un then it’s important to understand the domestic political incentives that will shape Kim’s approach to negotiations. On April 20th, Kim gave a major speech at a plenum meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Most U.S. media outlets focused on the announcement that the North would dismantle its nuclear testing facility and stop ballistic missile tests, but the speech also revealed important information about Kim’s political incentives that received less attention.
During a plenum meeting in March 2013, Kim announced the “byungjin line,” which stated that the North would develop its economy and nuclear arsenal simultaneously. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has made significant progress in the five years since the byungjin line was first announced. Kim acknowledged this progress in his April 20th speech when he declared that the byungjin line was successfully concluded. He also announced a “new strategic line” that focuses on economic and scientific development.
The end of the byungjin line and announcement of a new overarching strategy for North Korea shortly before the Trump-Kim summit has major implications for the Trump administration’s negotiating strategy.
The April 20th speech indicates that Kim’s primary objective in negotiations will be getting sanctions relief, because lifting sanctions is essential for achieving the economic development objective of the new strategic line. The new line may partially explain why the North has not demanded U.S. troop reductions in the lead-up to the summit. Pyongyang would rather not have a U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, but the troop presence does not greatly affect North Korea’s economic development so their removal is not necessary to achieve the new strategic line.
The Trump administration could use sanctions relief in a couple different ways depending on its overall negotiating strategy. For example, the United States could offer small concessions on sanctions relief in exchange for incremental progress on denuclearization in a tit-for-tat process. Such an approach would incentivize Kim to stay at the negotiating table over a longer period of time, but it would probably not produce any big, short-term wins for the Trump administration. Another approach entails standing firm on sanctions and not loosening them until the North takes major steps toward denuclearization. This would give the United States more leverage than the tit-for-tat approach, but Kim may be less willing to do what the United States demands without some other kind of concessions.
Coordination with U.S. allies and China will take center stage if sanctions relief is a more important issue to Kim than security guarantees. There are two main types of sanctions against North Korea. The United States, Japan, and South Korea have implemented several rounds of unilateral sanctions, while the UN Security Council has its own set of sanctions. The Trump administration was able to get China’s support for strong UN sanctions in 2017 as part of its maximum pressure strategy.
If the Trump administration wants to withhold sanctions relief to pressure Kim to take big steps towards denuclearization then it will have to coordinate with other sanctioning parties. Japan will likely stay in lockstep with the United States, but keeping South Korea and China on board could be more challenging. Seoul and Washington appear to be on the same page right now, but maintaining close coordination may prove difficult if the Moon Jae-in administration faces pressure to make some concessions on its unilateral sanctions during the inter-Korean summit. Maintaining China’s support for UN sanctions could also prove difficult because of the recent downturn in the US-China economic relationship.
Kim’s April 20th speech warrants very close consideration by the Trump administration. The end of the byungjin line marks the start of a new period for North Korea. Kim’s nuclear weapons are still important to him, but the speech indicates shifting domestic political incentives that will play an important role in negotiations with the United States. As the Trump administration crafts their negotiating strategy for the Trump-Kim summit they should keep Kim’s domestic incentives in mind and do their best to use these incentives to their advantage.