By: Jeremy Pekoff, Analyst, Asia Section
Analytical Question: Will a nuclear treaty be signed between the US and North Korea this year?
Following the inability of North Korea and the United States to sign a nuclear deal at the Hanoi summit in February, and recent threats made by North Korea to halt nuclear talks, US president Donald Trump stated on March 22 that the US would not be imposing any additional sanctions on North Korea. Although this may help keep nuclear diplomacy with North Korea alive, it could be stated with high confidence that this decision will not contribute to a nuclear deal being signed between the US and North Korea in 2019.
When US President Donald Trump met with the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un at the end of February in Hanoi, Vietnam, the two leaders were unable to broker a nuclear deal. This was primarily due to disagreements over US demands for denuclearization and North Korean demands for sanctions relief (Anon. 2019). Shortly after the summit, South Korean intelligence released images showing North Korea rebuilding its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a nuclear base in which it previously pledged to dismantle (Brumfiel 2019). In addition to rebuilding its nuclear facilities, the Vice Foreign Minister of North Korea, Choe Son Hui, stated that North Korea may suspend nuclear talks with the US and resume nuclear testing. Despite these developments, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that he is still confident that nuclear talks between the US and North Korea will continue (Lee 2019).
On Thursday March 21 the US implemented new sanctions on Chinese shipping companies that were helping North Korea bypass sanctions. Shortly after this announcement, North Korea pulled out of the liaison office with South Korea (Rampton 2019). The liaison office is extremely important in holding talks between North Korea and South Korea, so North Korea’s withdrawal was seen as a major setback for nuclear diplomacy. However, North Korea quickly rejoined the liaison office after the US announced on Friday that it would not impose any additional sanctions on North Korea (Lee 2019).
A number of North Korean experts, including Harry Kazianis, believe that President Trump’s decision not to impose additional sanctions on North Korea was meant to diffuse tensions and to maintain the relationship between the US and North Korea strong (Rampton 2019). Recently, Vice Foreign Minister Choe said that North Korea may suspend nuclear talks with the US. The decision by the US to hold off on implementing additional sanctions on North Korea could be seen as an act of good faith by Washington, thus encouraging the North Koreans to continue negotiations with the US. Although this is unlikely to be a driving force towards denuclearization, holding off on exerting new sanctions on North Korea has the potential of reducing tensions and could keep America’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea alive.
Given North Korea’s reluctance to completely denuclearize in exchange for sanctions relief at the Hanoi summit, and continued nuclear activity, it could be stated with high confidence that a nuclear deal will not be signed between the US and North Korea in 2019. Although the decision by the US to hold off on imposing new sanctions on North Korea may improve relations, it does not solve the underlying issues of why the two countries were unable to come up with a nuclear deal in the first place.
Brumfiel, Geoff. “North Korea Seen Reassembling Rocket Test Site.” NPR, 6 Mar. 2019,
Lee, Joyce. “North Korean Officials Return to Liaison Office after Pullout.” Thomson Reuters, 25 Mar. 2019.
Lee, Joyce. “North Korea May Suspend Talks with ‘Gangster-like’ U.S.” Thomson Reuters, 15 Mar. 2019, .
Rampton, Roberta. “Trump Decides against More North Korea Sanctions at This Time: Source.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 23 Mar. 2019.
“Trump-Kim Summit Breaks down after North Korea Demands End to Sanctions.” BBC, 28 Feb. 2019.