September 30, 2020

What we talk about when we talk about North Korean denuclearization

The Trump administration must be clearer about what it expects from Pyongyang

North Korea has a history of attempting to exploit ambiguities in U.S. positions and loopholes in verification to advance its nuclear weapons programs. Achieving a mutually-acceptable definition of key terms like “denuclearization” is the primary challenge of negotiating with North Korea. Prominent statements from Trump officials that offer contradictory definitions of denuclearization threaten negotiations before they have formally begun.

President Trump’s aspirational but vague definition—“it means getting rid of their nukes”—highlights the challenge his administration has had in grasping the complexity of a disarmament agreement and articulating a consistent message about U.S. objectives in advance of talks. Advance messaging is important for firmly setting expectations and denying Pyongyang maneuvering space in the negotiating process.