June 5, 2019 | Policy Brief

I’m testing this


Maximum Pressure 2.0: A Plan B for North Korea

By David Maxwell and Bradley Bowman


Former President Barack Obama advised then President-elect Donald Trump that North Korea would be his top national security challenge. The outgoing president’s warning was prescient. During President Trump’s first year in office, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a thermonuclear weapon.1 It was also a year of saber-rattling rhetoric between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump. This escalation follows a dangerous pattern that has prevailed for 25 years.2

On June 30, 2017, at a Republic of Korea (ROK)-U.S. summit, Trump and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, agreed to pursue complete denuclearization of North Korea and a maximum pressure campaign to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. They also agreed that South Korea would take the lead in establishing conditions for peaceful intra-Korean unification.3 In the year that followed, the allies implemented a targeted pressure campaign – to which this monograph will refer as “maximum pressure 1.0” – that included strong UN and U.S. sanctions on key North Korean entities and certain Chinese banks and facilitators. This campaign also included aggressive measures against the North’s global illicit activities, an international diplomatic effort, and increased emphasis on the military deterrence capabilities of the ROK-U.S. alliance. This pressure campaign cannot truly be described as “maximum,” however, since it lacked a holistic approach incorporating diplomatic and military pressure, cyber actions, and information and influence activities.

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Conditions appeared to change in 2018, beginning with a seemingly conciliatory New Year’s Day speech by Kim and an invitation from Moon for the North to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea.4 South Korean, North Korean, and American officials soon initiated discussions that culminated in three summits between Moon and Kim and a summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim. These engagements led to the so-called Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations, which included tension-reduction and confidence-building measures aimed at reducing the potential for military confrontation along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and in the East and West Seas. Seoul and Pyongyang codified these measures in a Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) in September 2018.5

U.S.-North Korean relations seemed to remain on a positive path during the beginning of 2019. A North Korean delegation visited the White House and scheduled a second Trump-Kim summit, which was eventually held in Hanoi in late February.6 However, Kim would not allow his negotiating team to discuss denuclearization, limiting talks to ancillary issues and summit preparations. At the summit, Kim demanded the removal of all sanctions imposed since March 2016, in return for closing North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility – a demand unacceptable to Trump, who walked out of the negotiations.7

Kim’s failure to achieve substantial sanctions relief knocked him off balance. He almost certainly feels pressure from regime elites and the military to elicit additional concessions from the Trump administration. This perhaps explains a subsequent series of actions by Kim designed to enhance his legitimacy at home and coerce the United States into negotiations that would yield sanctions relief.

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