The Trump administration claims “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program—from using military force, to pressuring China to punish its North Korean ally, to Donald Trump negotiating directly with Kim Jong Un. But what do those options look like? And what consequences could they have? This series explores those questions, option by option.
Before Donald Trump was threatening North Korea with apocalyptic war, he was an advocate of trying to negotiate with the Kim regime over its pursuit of nuclear weapons prior to taking any military action. “If a man walks up to you on a street in Washington … and puts a gun to your head and says, ‘Give me your money,’ wouldn’t you rather know where he’s coming from before he had the gun in his hand?” Trump asked Tim Russert on Meet the Press in October 1999. The time was ripe to strike a deal with the North Koreans and, if that failed, to strike their young nuclear program, he argued, with foresight, because the North was just several years away from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Now the gun is swiveling toward Trump’s head; North Korea is thought to be very close to obtaining a nuclear weapon that can hit the United States. But the American president still hasn’t given up on talking to the gunman. Trump “has told people around him” that his militant rhetoric regarding North Korea is designed to “create a crisis that drives [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] to negotiate before North Korea perfects a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the American mainland,” The New York Times reports. (An American diplomat is also reportedly in touch with a North Korean diplomat in New York, though little has come of the back channel so far.)
North Korea temporarily agreed to restrictions on its nuclear and missile development in the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, even briefly committing to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” in 2005, but the history of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy is marked by much more failure than success. Negotiations have been dormant for many years, and each side demands that the other make massive concessions before talks can even begin. The Trump administration has insisted that North Korea agree in advance to give up its nuclear weapons and immediately stop its “provocative threats, nuclear tests, missile launches and other weapons tests,” while the Kim government has refused to budge “unless the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat to [North Korea] are definitely terminated.”
Then there’s this daunting fact: There’s only one case in which a country—South Africa—has abandoned nuclear weapons that it built and controlled. (Three former Soviet republics—Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—relinquished nukes that they inherited from the Soviet Union.) Negotiators hoping to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons would be aiming to accomplish something with little historical precedent.
So what kind of agreement, at this point, can North Korea and the United States possibly achieve? Below are three options, proposed by experts who, to paraphrase Donald Trump, have taken the time to understand where the gunman is coming from.
The most modest proposal comes via Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist who has visited North Korea and inspected its nuclear facilities several times. Hecker argues that the most urgent issue in U.S.-North Korean relations isn’t the North’s development of a long-range missile that can carry a nuclear warhead to the United States; rather, it’s the potential for the two countries to stumble into a nuclear catastrophe on the Korean peninsula, against the better judgment of their leaders. “It is possible that in his drive to reach the U.S. mainland [with a nuclear-weapons capability] to achieve a greater balance with the United States, Kim could miscalculate where the line actually is and trigger a response from Washington that could lead to war,” Hecker recently told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (Trump administration officials have suggested that the line is somewhere around North Korea achieving the ability to credibly threaten the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons.) “The problem is that we know nothing about Kim Jong Un and the military leaders that control his arsenal.”
The way to reduce these dangers of miscalculation, according to Hecker, is for Trump, in consultation with U.S. partners in the region, to send a delegation of military and diplomatic officials to Pyongyang. The objective of the outreach wouldn’t be to secure some comprehensive settlement on North Korea’s nuclear program; instead, it would be merely to talk, to get to know the other side and and seek consensus that a military conflict—especially a nuclear conflict—would pose unacceptable hazards to all belligerents and should therefore be avoided at all costs. U.S. presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan helped avert nuclear war by holding similar summits with Soviet leaders, Hecker points out. U.S. officials could take the opportunity to emphasize to their North Korean counterparts that they won’t risk war by attacking North Korea or seeking to overthrow the Kim government, just as they expect North Korea to not risk war by attacking the United States, South Korea, and Japan or by transferring elements of its nuclear program to other actors like terrorist groups.
In addition, “We have to better understand what North Korea’s nuclear intentions are,” Hecker has argued. “What do they expect to get from their nuclear weapons, what are their nuclear policies, what do they have in place to avoid nuclear accidents, what do they have in place to make certain their nuclear weapons are safe and secure? “
The need to establish lines of communication and mechanisms for avoiding inadvertent war is so pressing that the Trump administration shouldn’t set any conditions for dialogue, Hecker advises. Unconditional talks, as he sees them, should not be thought of as a concession to North Korea or a tacit acceptance of its nuclear-weapons program. They could lay a foundation for more substantive negotiations, or they could not. But their primary purpose is to enhance the security of the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia in the face of an undeniable reality: North Korea has a whole bunch of increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons, whether the U.S. likes it or not. As Hecker has put it, “The immediate issue, I believe, is that we have a nuclear crisis on our hands now.”
In 1999, around the time that Donald Trump was talking North Korea on Meet the Press, William Perry was meeting with senior officials in North Korea and touring a top North Korean military officer around Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley. As Bill Clinton’s defense secretary in 1994, Perry had drawn up (ultimately discarded) plans to bomb a North Korean nuclear reactor, bringing the United States perhaps closer than it has ever been since to war with the North. But now, tasked by Clinton with revamping North Korea policy and serving as a presidential envoy to Pyongyang, he was bringing the U.S. arguably closer than it has ever been since to peace with the North. The diplomatic campaign soon vanished—George W. Bush, who was elected months later, took a hard line on North Korea—but Perry learned several lessons from the experience. Chief among them was, as he wrote in a 1999 report on his efforts, that U.S. policy must “deal with the North Korean government as it is, not as we might wish it to be.”
Kim Jong Un leads “an abhorrent regime” that shows no “consideration for their own people,” and “on top of that they also have a nuclear arsenal,” Perry told me. “If we don’t accept those facts that we’re not going to be able to change, then there’s no point in negotiating.”
At this stage, with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal far more advanced than it was in 1999, when the country was still seven years away from testing its first nuclear weapon, “I don’t believe there’s a chance of getting an agreement [in which the North Koreans] simply turn their arsenal over,” Perry said. “But what I think we could negotiate today—not easily—is an agreement to freeze the nuclear testing and freeze the missile tests. That’s not all we want. But it’s something that’s very much worth having, because if they keep on testing, they’re going to get an operational ICBM,” or intercontinental ballistic missile, which puts the mainland United States in range of North Korean nuclear weapons, “and they’re probably going to get a thermonuclear warhead,” which is orders of magnitude more powerful than an atomic bomb.
The North Korean threat is currently quite grave, he acknowledged. (Perry worries far less about an unprovoked North Korean nuclear attack than about a North Korean provocation leading South Korea into a conventional conflict that then spirals out of control, with the North Koreans using nukes out of desperation.) But if North Korea were to perfect an ICBM or procure a thermonuclear weapon, it “would greatly aggravate the threat.” Putting the nuclear program on ice would effectively force North Korea to adhere to what Siegfried Hecker has called the “Three Nos”: No additional nuclear weapons, no improved nuclear weapons, and no export of nuclear weapons.
Perry sympathized with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s rationale for opposing a Chinese proposal to suspend North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the U.S. suspending major military exercises with South Korea—that the deal would still leave North Korea with a fearsome nuclear capability that can threaten America and its allies. But Perry’s response was simple: tough luck.
“I don’t want them to have what they have right now. But they have it,” he said. “I would start off with what they have and [look into] how we can keep it from getting worse. If—if—we can succeed in that,” then the Trump administration can move on to the next objective of trying to dismantle the North Korean nuclear program, he explained. “But if we can’t get the first objective, we’re certainly not going to be able to get the second.” (Such an approach could be particularly dicey for Trump, who has repeatedly condemned the Obama administration for capitulating to Iran in a deal that deferred rather than definitively resolved the Iranian nuclear threat.)
As for what North Korea would demand in return for freezing its nuclear-weapons development, Perry told me that he’d gained insight into the leadership’s priorities during his discussions with North Korean officials in the late 1990s. Their number-one goal is the survival of the Kim regime, he noted, followed by international respect and recognition and then, in third place, improving the economy. So while it’s worth experimenting with economic disincentives (such as sanctions, especially by North Korea’s top trading partner, China) and economic incentives (such as reopening and replicating Kaesong, an industrial complex jointly run by North Korea and South Korea), that’s not where the United States has the most leverage against North Korea.
According to Perry, the Trump administration could consider dangling a range of security assurances in front of North Korea—from finally signing a peace agreement to end the Korean War, with support from the Chinese and South Koreans, to issuing a statement of non-aggression against North Korea “co-signed” by China, which has a defense treaty with the North and fears the turmoil that could result from the Kim government collapsing. The U.S. could also appeal to North Korea’s desire for international prestige by taking steps toward establishing a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang and normal relations between the two countries.
While it would be relatively easy for international inspectors to verify whether North Korea, which has violated the terms of past agreements, is abiding by the freeze, Perry observed, it would be more difficult to confirm that the North Koreans are rolling back their nuclear program, should negotiations ever get to that point. And North Korea may now be so far along as a nuclear power that no deal is possible. But the Trump administration should at least make a last run at diplomacy, he argued. And it should hedge against the failure of those talks by beefing up its deterrence against North Korean aggression—from missile-defense systems to strong statements about the overwhelming American response that would follow any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
John Delury, a North Korea scholar at Yonsei University in South Korea, shares Perry’s vision for a deal in which North Korea freezes its nuclear and missile programs in order to receive U.S. security guarantees and diplomatic recognition. But he goes much further. As part of a phased process that begins with back-channel talks and culminates with a summit between Trump and Kim, Delury imagines the Trump administration easing sanctions, which for decades have failed to squash North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and instead focusing on helping the North Korean economy flourish.
“North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction,” Delury writes in Foreign Affairs. “And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into Northeast Asia. What’s more, the world can best help most North Koreans by relieving their deprivation and bringing down the walls that separate them from the outside world.”
Still, Delury admits that even if his ambitious plan to turn the Hermit Kingdom into the “next Asian tiger” succeeds, it might never render that tiger toothless. “Convincing Kim to hand over his last bomb could take decades, and the world may never reach the perfect outcome of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” he writes.
His note of caution highlights a problem with many of the most ambitious proposals for a negotiated solution to the North Korean nuclear threat: They involve plenty of wishful thinking. “What makes Delury believe that the freeze would in fact generate further moves by North Korea when the regime could reap the benefit of endless delay getting to anything difficult?” asks Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the University of California, San Diego. “I have seen precious little to suggest that Kim Jong Un is anxious to trade his nuclear weapons for what Delury puts on offer, however generous.”
But how can U.S. officials find out what the North Koreans might do? For two nuclear-weapons powers that are currently talking past each other, the first order of business may simply be to talk with each other.