After dramatic diplomatic maneuvers by South Korea and an unexpectedly warm response from North Korea, the United States finds itself in a position that many thought would never come again: planning for a discussion with Kim Jong Un that includes denuclearization.
Yesterday, a delegation of special envoys from Seoul agreed to hold working-level consultations with Pyongyang in late April, establish a hotline between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, discuss denuclearization with the United States, and pause nuclear and missile tests during the dialogue. Moreover: According to one South Korean negotiator, Kim said that he understood that the U.S.-South Korean joint exercises “must resume in April on the same scale as before.” So far, the North has yet to confirm the plans to hold these talks, and has yet to comment directly on the substance of the meeting. But if these terms hold, they would represent a major concession for a regime that has hysterically claimed that these exercises were a prelude to invasion. The Kim regime may have taken a step even beyond the freeze-for-freeze proposal in which joint exercises, as well as nuclear and missile tests, would all be reciprocally frozen. Instead, it seems to have offered a freeze for free.
Most experts doubted that Pyongyang would agree to pause or delay its nuclear and missile-testing schedule. But its stance has consistently been more nuanced than how it has been characterized—as a flat refusal to denuclearize. North Korea, in fact, has always viewed its nuclear program as a response to the threat from the United States, a point it reportedly emphasized again on Tuesday. According to South Korea’s description of yesterday’s meeting, the Kim regime “made clear that there is no reason for them to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed.” It won’t be easy for the Trump administration to provide security assurances to a regime that threatens America’s allies, especially as providing such assurances would conflict with the effort to escalate tensions seemingly in an attempt to gain leverage.
But despite these favorable signals from the Kim regime, the complete dismantling of its nuclear and missile complexes remains a distant hope. It is difficult to imagine international inspectors swarming over the North Korean countryside, poking their noses into clandestine military sites after state officials have repeatedly claimed that it is the country’s sovereign right to possess these weapons.
For this reason, an all-or-nothing approach to the negotiations by the Trump administration would be unwise. A number of experts have said that the most effective strategy would, instead, be to start with mutually advantageous, limited agreements, and build up to more ambitious agreements to cap, roll back, and then eliminate the weapons. In this way, the United States could stabilize the situation and perhaps limit the rate of expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Even if North Korea’s progress on its nuclear and missile programs continues behind the scenes as negotiations begin, the freeze would prevent it from conducting dangerous tests over Japan or from testing new bombs. As long as the freeze holds, North Korea will be denied the crucial data from Japan overflights that it needs to perfect reentry technology that would allow it to deliver a warhead to its target. It will also be prevented from carrying out a destabilizing, potentially damaging atmospheric nuclear test.
As far as security assurances are concerned, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already stated that America does “not seek a regime change” in North Korea. If Kim honors his promise to refrain from nuclear and missile tests while dialogue continues, the Trump administration should be ready to reciprocate by modifying its joint exercises, dialing back military provocations directed at the regime, and offering further assurances—small prices to pay so long as the alliance can maintain military readiness. In the meantime, the United States and its allies could take measures to persuade North Korea that its forces stationed on the Korean peninsula are there for defensive purposes only. Any demand to draw down U.S. forces on the peninsula would be unacceptable without a major change in the security situation.
The unfortunate truth is that North Korea has rational incentives to retain its nuclear and missile programs—they give the Kim regime a strong hand. The United States will have to be ready to offer real concessions of real value to the North to achieve any progress at all. This won’t be easy for an administration opposed even to deals like the Iran nuclear agreement that are favorable to the United States.
If the choices are denuclearization or nothing, it’s an easy choice for Kim Jong Un: The United States will get nothing, missile advancements will continue, and the unstable military crisis will return again with a vengeance. Pyongyang would be perfectly happy to be allowed to continue testing when talks fail. The better strategy is to force Kim to make the hard choice: For the time being, will he accept a rudimentary nuclear capability? The eventual alternative could be an advanced program with scores of survivable missiles, including on submarines, with multiple warheads capable of penetrating missile defenses, low-yield nuclear options on the peninsula, and more. Without an agreement to cap the program, things only get worse.
Above all else, it will be critical to present a united front with South Korea through this process. Analysts in the United States worry that North Korea has sought to split the alliance, but the sorry fact is that Donald Trump has done more damage to the relationship than Kim ever could. Close coordination will be essential to preventing dialogue from splitting into two separate, creating a division that Pyongyang could exploit. A “wedge strategy” to split the alliance can only work if Washington lets it.
The security of the United States and its allies will demand that the Trump administration resist its worst urges. The Trump team has sometimes acted as if antagonizing North Korea means that it is winning. (For example, Vice President Mike Pence announced new sanctions while he was preparing to meet with North Korean officials in Seoul.) The administration’s own policy depends on these success of talks. While it should always be ready to walk away from a bad deal, and should insist on verifiable reciprocity at every step, the United States can’t allow itself to be the cause of the talks’ failure.
The overwhelming likelihood is that talks collapse and the North returns to testing. Yet, yesterday’s overture exceeds all but the most optimistic expectations and is the best chance in years to alter North Korea’s upward trajectory. Doing so will require talks that are more grueling, exacting, and imperfect than even the Iran nuclear negotiations that Trump called “the worst deal ever.”