The Trump administration says that if the upcoming summit between the United States and North Korea fails or doesn’t happen at all, the United States and its allies can go right back to the “maximum pressure” campaign that brought Kim Jong Un to the table in the first place. In reality, doing that would be difficult if not impossible. The pressure is already diminishing.
The administration’s claim that it can immediately turn on the pressure again is crucial to its effort to play it cool ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. President Trump often says that if Kim doesn’t want to strike a good deal, he will simply walk away, no harm done. After the North Korean government threatened to scuttle the talks this week in response to comments from national security adviser John Bolton, the White House doubled down on this assertion.
In reality, the dynamics that made a successful maximum-pressure campaign possible have changed fundamentally. The United States and its allies have paused their efforts to increase sanctions on North Korea to give diplomacy a chance to work. The sting of the existing sanctions naturally erodes over time. There are reports that China is already easing up on its sanctions enforcement, allowing more laborers and goods to flow over North Korea’s northern border. The mood in South Korea has changed significantly, making the threat of military action less credible.
“You just can’t turn the maximum-pressure switch back on unless you can persuade the South Koreans and the Chinese to do that,” said former State Department non-proliferation official Joseph DeThomas. “By the end of last year, time was on our side, and what Kim has done is that he’s flipped us. Time is no longer on our side.”
As Trump is finding out after pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, snapping back an international sanctions regime that took years of diplomacy and political will to build is not easy, especially when your partners don’t see eye to eye.
The North Koreans know this perfectly well. By seeming like a constructive actor, Kim is also preparing for what happens next if talks fail. The United States will be hard pressed to win international support for striking North Korea’s nuclear program while Kim is slowly dismantling it himself. South Koreans won’t want to reverse history and go back to a