U.S. Coercive Diplomacy towards North Korea: Rocky Road to Singapore

By Andy B. Anderson


Trump administration’s coercive diplomacy was effective in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table at the June 2018 landmark summit in Singapore. Such an application of coercive diplomacy consisted of a tacit ultimatum and, upon securing North Korea’s desire to negotiate, verbal assurances of future positive inducements. A tacit ultimatum incorporates a clear demand on the opponent; a sense of urgency for compliance without setting an explicit time limit; and a credible punitive threat to influence an opponent (George, 2015, p. 108). In so doing, the Trump administration’s coercive diplomacy skillfully addressed all variables associated with the construction of a strategy of coercive diplomacy, namely demand on the opponent; generation of a sense of urgency for compliance with the demand; conveyance of credible punitive threat for noncompliance; as well as decision about the possible use of positive inducements and assurances. Jentleson (2006) defines coercive diplomacy as a type of diplomatic strategy with limited coercion that may be applied through economic sanctions and other measures to exert power (p. 2). George (2015) presents four types of coercive diplomacy strategies that primarily focus on the use of punitive threats, namely ultimatum, tacit ultimatum, “try and see” approach, and a “gradual turning of the screw.” Furthermore, the scholar describes the strategy of “carrots and sticks” as the one that uses positive inducements and reassurances coupled with the threats to change the behavior of an opponent (pp. 108-110).

Undoubtedly, the Trump administration faces a difficult task to resolve the nuclear crisis with North Korea, appropriately characterized as the present “Cuban missile crisis in slow motion” (Sanger & Broad, 2018, p. 1). North Korea represents one of the greatest threats to U.S. national security as a result of the development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs that can enable its regime to launch the nuclear-tipped missiles at the U.S. homeland. In fact, in 2017 the United States had to deal with its third nuclear deadlock with North Korea in nearly twenty-five years (Litvak, 2017, p. 11). The previous track record of coercive diplomacy with North Korea does not inspire optimism (Gramer & Tamkin, 2018, pp. 1-7). In this article, I delineate why the Trump administration’s construction of a strategy of coercive diplomacy towards North Korea before the June 2018 summit in Singapore was more successful than the ones from the past administrations. First, I assess the Trump administration’s strategy of tacit ultimatum.

Tacit Ultimatum

As I’ll describe in this section, the carefully calibrated tacit ultimatum was the main reason that compelled North Korea to negotiate at the June 2018 summit in Singapore. Vice President Pence claimed that “The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the United States making zero concessions, and, in close coordination with our allies, we have consistently increased the pressure on the Kim Regime” (Pence, 2018, p. 1).  In other words, Trump administration’s initial application of coercive diplomacy focused exclusively on both unilateral and multilateral punitive threats to influence North Korea. As presented below, communication of clear demand is the first significant variable of a tacit ultimatum.

Clear Demand on the Opponent

Similar to the past administrations, Trump administration used coercive diplomacy to demand the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea. More recently, his administration also demanded to stop the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach the U.S. homeland (Jervis & Rapp-Hooper, 2018, p. 2). According to realism, coercive diplomacy services the power objective of U.S. national interest. Power focuses not only on self-defense and protection of sovereignty with territorial integrity but also on the influence on foreign states and deterrence of military conflicts (Jentleson, 2014, p. 9). Although the realist paradigm consists of various subcategories, all realists subscribe to the three main ideas, such as statism, survival, and self-help (Dunne & Schmidt, 2017, p. 113). Coercive diplomacy can ensure a state’s survival. According to realism, survival represents the apex of national interest to which state leaders must adhere (Dunne & Schmidt, 2017, p. 113). Henry Kissinger (1977) agrees that “a nation’s survival is its first and ultimate responsibility; it cannot be compromised or put at risk” (p. 2014). In other words, by following the realist notions, Trump administration presented a clear demand to North Korea about denuclearization to ensure the survival of the United States. As we shall see in the next section, the creation of a sense of urgency about compliance with demand is the second paramount part of the tacit ultimatum.

Sense of Urgency for Compliance with Demand

Trump administration’s economic and diplomatic “maximum pressure campaign” (Pence, 2018, p. 1) generated a sense of real urgency in North Korea to comply with the demand above. Despite adopting a tough discourse towards North Korea, both Bush and Obama administrations were unsuccessful in fully enforcing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures against this rogue state. Although since 2006, in connection with the North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council imposed sanctions, the member states violated them throughout the years (Stanton et al., 2017, p. 71). Therefore, many sceptics predicted similar results for Trump administration’s application of coercive policy. By contrast, the current administration has been more effective in its gambit of “maximum pressure campaign” in incentivizing North Korea to comply with the U.S. demand. For example, the Trump administration was able to push for comprehensive sanctions that comprised of both the U.N. sanctions as well as secondary U.S. sanctions. Such an approach was different from the targeted sanctions that were implemented by the previous administrations. Targeted sanctions were used to punish North Korean companies and individuals that were involved in the production and proliferation of its nuclear weapons. However, such an approach was ineffective since it primarily affected the general public and not so much the economy of this rogue state (Wang, 2018, p. 2). “Economic sanctions can be an effective part of coercive diplomacy strategy when imposed multilaterally and sustained over time” (Jentleson, 2006, p. 8). In other words, having multilateral and not just unilateral sanctions may not only strengthen the economic impact but also send a powerful message of global political will. China, as North Korea’s largest trade partner, also finally cooperated in enforcing the 2017 U.N. sanctions of declining imports of North Korean goods that resulted in worsening North Korea’s balance of payments (DeThomas, 2018, p. 2).

 Moreover, Trump administration was also successful in its efforts to continue international diplomatic isolation of North Korea. For example, since 2017 the United States pressured Portugal and Jordan to end their diplomatic relations with North Korea. Italy, Spain, Kuwait, Mexico, and Peru expelled North Korean ambassadors while the Philippines and Thailand weakened their economic activities with North Korea. Trump administration has also kept both China and Russia accountable for maintaining or escalating pressure on North Korea (Wang, 2018, p. 3). Thus, the Trump administration’s approach of comprehensive sanctions and diplomatic pressures led to the overall blockade of North Korea and “in the past half year have produced results not seen in the past 20 years” (Wang, 2018, p. 2). As presented below, the credible threat of punishment for non-compliance is the last crucial part of the credible tacit ultimatum.

Credible Threat of Punishment for Non-Compliance with Demand

Trump administration convincingly conveyed to North Korea a credible threat of punishment for non-compliance with its demand. Apart from the Clinton administration that showed its willingness to use military force against the rogue state, other administrations resorted to building a defensive posture to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat. Unfortunately, such a strategy was unsuccessful since North Korea’s leadership assumed that the United States could tolerate North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons (Wang, 2018, p. 3).  Given the previous dismal results, Trump administration has decided to take a different approach similar to the one Trump articulated in the 1987’s newspaper advertisements: “there’s nothing wrong with America’s foreign defense policy that a little backbone can’t cure” (Laderman, 2017, p. 6). For example, with military preparations being made, his administration expressed its willingness to use force against North Korea as punishment for testing the ICBM in July 2017 and threatening a nuclear attack against the U.S. Cha and Katz claim that “never before have we witnessed more discussion about possible military escalation than in the past year” (2018, p. 88). In other words, through rhetoric and actions, Trump administration’s coercive diplomacy communicated to North Korea a credible punitive threat for non-compliance. Lastly, after the tacit ultimatum reached its goal in bringing North Koreans to the negotiating table, Trump administration offered verbal assurances of future positive inducements.

Verbal Assurances of Future Positive Inducements

In addition to the initial tacit ultimatum, Trump administration’s strategy of coercive diplomacy before the summit in Singapore also incorporated verbal assurances of future positive inducements. In so doing, the current administration not only demonstrated goodwill prior to the meeting but also previewed the possibility of engaging in the “carrots and sticks” coercive strategy during and after the summit. For example, while other administrations have pledged economic inducements and promises not to take military action against North Korea, Trump administration specifically assured the protection and prosperity of the North Korean regime (Bierman and Lauter, 2018, para. 4).  U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also said that the United States wanted “to have North Korea as a close partner and not an enemy” (Lederman and Lee, 2018, para. 1).

The addition of verbal assurances of future positive inducements after the initial tacit ultimatum not only encouraged easier compliance by an opponent but also serviced the prosperity objective of the U.S. national interest. Based on economism, prosperity objective can be pursued by aligning the U.S. and North Korean interests for economic development. The pursuit of such a strategy coincides with economism that underscores foreign policies for achieving the favorable balance of trade, robust economic growth, and other healthy macroeconomic parameters (Jentleson, 2014, p. 14). Inspired by economism, some contemporary foreign policy experts advocate counterintuitive policies that may motivate North Korea to concentrate on its prosperity versus on its self-preservation through the buildup of the nuclear arsenal (Delury, 2017, p. 46). Such foreign policy approach is beneficial for the United States as well since it also achieves economic benefits for the nation. Therefore, verbal assurances of future positive inducements not only enhanced Trump administration’s strategy of coercive diplomacy but also serviced the prosperity objective of the national interest.


            This article aspires to prove that Trump administration’s coercive diplomacy was effective in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table at the June 2018 landmark summit in Singapore. Such a two-part strategy of coercive diplomacy consisted of a tacit ultimatum and, upon securing North Korea’s desire to negotiate, verbal assurances of future positive inducements. In so doing, based on George’s framework, the Trump administration’s coercive diplomacy capably addressed all variables associated with the construction of a strategy of coercive diplomacy. At the same time, it aspired to serve both power and prosperity objectives of U.S. national interest.

While utilizing the potential “carrots and sticks” strategy post-Singapore summit, Trump administration has to be careful about “neither offering too much too soon, for too little in return, nor too little too late, for too much in return” (Jentleson, 2006, p. 5). The next steps of Trump administration’s coercive diplomacy so far are uncertain since the issue of personal prestige is also at stake. Experts believe that Trump, as the internationally acclaimed dealmaker (Walt, 2018, p. 5), “finally met his match” in Kim regarding high-stakes geopolitical negotiations (Bicker, 2018, p. 1). The misperceptions of threats and inducements during continuing negotiations can lead to an avalanche in bilateral relations and the possible military conflict (Jervis & Rapp-Hooper, 2018, p. 4). Hill claims that “Singapore has upped the ante for the United States” (2018, p. 3). Therefore, the outcome of Trump administration’s coercive diplomacy may not only permanently affect the situation on the Korean Peninsula but also radically transform the rest of the world.

Andy B. Anderson attends Norwich University where he pursues a Master of Art in International Relations and a concentration in International Security.


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 Image Source: The Economist, June 16th 2018