April 27, 2017

Sourabh Gupta

“Maximum pressure and engagement” to get the Kim Jong-un regime to abandon its nuclear and missile program appears to be the watchword of the Trump Administration’s North Korea policy. “Maximum pressure” utilizing a wider toolkit of penalties is sought to be inflicted by the administration upon the Kim Jong-un regime so that “engagement” can be established on a qualitatively different footing, and concessions obtained on denuclearization and dismantlement of a qualitatively deeper character. Initially, at least, the core emphasis of “maximum pressure and engagement” will be to augment and intensify the political, economic and financial pressure on Pyongyang, with noticeably greater assistance from Beijing. Should Beijing fail to come through on this front, “secondary sanctions” on Chinese financial institutions and entities that have ties to North Korean front companies are likely to be instituted.

The North Korea Policy Review is not likely to directly embrace either China’s “suspension-for-suspension” proposal, i.e. DPRK’s suspension of missile and nuclear activities in exchange for a halt or downgrading of the U.S.-ROK’s large scale military exercises, or its “parallel track approach” proposal, i.e. denuclearizing the Korean peninsula while replacing the Korean War armistice with a peace agreement on a related timeline, in the short-to-medium term. On the other hand, a glimmer of hope rests in the possibility that the Trump Administration may be willing to relax the Obama Administration’s insistence of demanding an upfront pledge from Kim Jong-un to denuclearize as a pre-condition to restarting any overt form of direct U.S.-DPRK engagement. This up-front pre-conditioning might be softened or even quietly dropped from the administration’s North Korea-related policy communications. Down the line, when a new pro-engagement president is elected in South Korea, this could open the door to direct communications with the North Korean regime and exploratory efforts in a bilateral or four-cornered format towards a ‘freeze arrangement.’

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