Skip to main content

New Year, New Strategy: Shifting Policies on North Korea in 2018

As a once-unthinkable season of summits approaches between the North Koreans and their Korean War foes, here is a look at the calculus on all sides.

Date & Time

Apr. 25, 2018
1:30pm – 3:00pm


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Get Directions

New Year, New Strategy: Shifting Policies on North Korea in 2018

After more than a year of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear provocations and a war of words between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, we have seen an abrupt shift in strategy on the Korean Peninsula. Declaring himself content with North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal in late 2017, Kim Jong Un began 2018 with a new approach: diplomatic outreach. A summit between Kim and ROK President Moon Jae-in inside the Demilitarized Zone will be held later this month, the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade.

On the eve of the summit between the leaders of the Koreas, several leading scholars discussed this shift in strategy, including lessons from history, prospects for peace and reconciliation, and implications for the United States, as President Trump prepares for his own summit with Kim. Key questions included how South Koreans feel about reunification and what Kim really wants from the U.S. in return for giving up nuclear weapons.

Selected Quotes

Joonho Cheon

“We are cautiously optimistic that this time, the inter-Korean summit and the North Korea-U.S. summit can be a success... Changes of government, bottom-up approaches, and a lack of trust between North Korea and the United States all contributed to the failure [of previous efforts]. This time, the situation is different… Most importantly, these talks are being conducted in a top-down manner… North Korea and the United States can talk directly, building trust without the risk of any third-party miscommunication.”

“Some people worry about the hurried pace of proceedings. President Moon has been preparing for this from the moment he took office. Ever since his speech in Berlin last year, his administration has presented consistent policy for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Abraham Denmark

“North Korea still has not frozen its program. It has frozen certain aspects of testing – no nuclear tests and no testing of certain ballistic missiles –[but] their nuclear scientists are still able to do their work… Just so long as they are not conducting these full-out tests, their program is still moving. As time goes along, their capabilities can continue to improve.”

“Personally, I’m not too concerned with the inter-Korean summit. I think President Moon and the ROK government have been very careful in their engagements with the U.S. The risks of these engagements are that they go further than either side would be willing to go either in terms of concessions or not far enough in terms of demand. I think President Moon, especially, has been very careful in his engagements with the United States to make sure that we line up.”

Jean H. Lee

“My students in South Korea, who have only really grown up with tension with North Korea…have seen North Koreans as their poor brethren on the other side of the DMZ and also, in some ways, as their adversaries. Their feelings towards reconciliation and potential reunification are very different today than the generation 20 years ago that was welcoming... It has huge ramifications for the South Korean government, and I think President Moon experienced a little bit of that backlash with the Olympics from the younger generation.”

“North Koreans tell me that they feel somewhat abandoned by South Korea. They know they are somewhat cut off from the rest of the world – they don’t have access to the internet like we do – but they are very well aware that their country is much poorer than South Korea and their big concern was, ‘Have they forgotten about us?’ [In] this summit, we will see a strong show of Korean unity... It will play well in Pyongyang for Kim Jong Un.”

“Even though [Kim] believes he is going into this as an equal, portraying himself as an equal, we have to remember that this is still a very poor country with a lot at stake down the road, with sanctions so tight at the moment – sanctions that are going to put a real pinch on the people in the months to come if the situation isn’t resolved.”

Jung H. Pak

“For [Kim], he sees the summits as not just a meeting of heads of states, but as the peak of his strategy, the peak of his goals, and the peak of his accomplishments. He’s been very clear in the regime’s media about how he feels he has gotten there.”

“The U.S. policy has been maximum pressure and maybe engagement at some point. But it turns out that Kim is also good at maximum pressure and maximum engagement. What we’ve seen in the past seven years was that he went full-throttle on the weapons program, and now he’s going full-on into maximum engagement, compressing half a dozen summit meetings with world and regional leaders into a period of four or five months. That would be enviable for any world leader to do.”

“Last fall and last winter, we were talking about how time was running out…Time has slowed out since January 1, 2018. That’s also to North Korea’s benefit in that the longer we draw out negotiations [and] the longer we talk about what denuclearization means… the stronger the North Korean argument is that they are a de facto nuclear power.”

Jake Sullivan

“The interesting moment that we’re in right now – it is in some ways a diplomatic sweet spot – is Kim has declared this capability [of delivering an ICBM], but the United States’ assessment is they haven’t yet crossed the finish line. That is the one place you can exist where an extended period of freeze actually works for both sides.”

“In many ways, inverting the process so that the leaders come first, before you have months of preparation, works to a kind of Trumpian logic of, ‘I go sit down with the big man on the other side, we work out the deal, we solve the problem, and then the sequencing and specifics get left to somebody else.’ I think that is the context within which the thrust of American policy [lies], as things stand now.”

“If I had to predict, I think the outcome of all of this, with respect to the nuclear file, will be something akin to 2005. I went back and read it and was struck by its breadth, by the extent to which it put really significant commitments on the table from both sides to resolve a lot of the outstanding issues. I think Trump will probably be prepared to go even further than that, frankly. There’s nothing he feels that is off limits [or] off the table to talk about.”

Hosted By

Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Event Feedback