Everything Should Be on the Table in Korea

Failure in Hanoi reinforces the need for bolder future commitments to peace.
March 8, 2019 • Commentary
This article appeared on Foreign Policy on March 8, 2019.

Virtually no one observing U.S. President Donald Trump’s preparations for his second summit with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un imagined that the meeting last month would fail. The president had invested so much—it would be hard to walk away. In Singapore last year, he had accepted the thinnest of statements as a victory.

That didn’t stop Trump from canceling the last meeting and final lunch of his visit with Kim. His theatrical exit, he said, reflected a substantive disagreement, though exactly what that was remains in dispute. The parties publicly disagreed on how many nuclear facilities would be closed down and how much sanctions relief would be granted under the respective disarmament proposals. More broadly, the president apparently pushed a quick grand bargain while Kim favored a slower and more limited process.

Such confusion might reflect the fact that the two longtime adversaries have only recently returned to the table. The United States and North Korea had little sustained diplomatic contact during the Barack Obama years, and the last six‐​party talks, in 2007, are even more distant. The North also may have sought to emphasize the Trump‐​Kim discussions in hopes of taking advantage of the U.S. president’s lack of experience.

However, it’s possible Trump was playing a deeper game. Abruptly leaving while claiming that his North Korean counterpart had offered too few concessions was an obvious bargaining tactic: Any flea market aficionado knows walking away often wins a better deal. Moreover, the president quieted domestic critics convinced he had been bewitched by Kim. Consequently, Trump will have an easier time selling any future agreement at home.

In any case, negotiations should continue. In fact, both the president and the secretary of state insisted that progress had been made despite the disappointing outcome. However, success requires both sides to scale back expectations. The United States should abandon hopes for a diplomatic Big Bang, essentially trading all nuclear weapons for all sanctions. North Korea is not going to rely on America’s good wishes. With obvious logic, the North Koreans have insisted on first improving bilateral relations and regional dynamics before moving to denuclearization.

However, the North must also recognize that the United States is unlikely to sacrifice its most important form of leverage, sanctions, without receiving corresponding benefits. Just how disarmament steps balance against sanctions will have to be determined through sustained negotiations, not a short chat between the two principals. Trump may drive the summit process, but he appears to listen to others before making a final deal.

Everything should be on the table in future negotiations, since the objective, a stable peace, is worth significant sacrifice. Even the U.S. troop presence in South Korea should be treated as a means to an end—security—rather than an end in itself. Ultimately, both parties should think long‐​term, with the intent of permanently changing the other side’s willingness as well as ability to take military action.

Even so, the challenges will remain formidable. For instance, Trump’s desire to solve the North Korea problem in one fell swoop is understandable. However, while comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization is a fine objective, it almost certainly is unrealistic. There are sound reasons to doubt the North’s willingness to denuclearize, irrespective of Kim’s rhetoric.

Pyongyang has devoted significant resources to its nuclear program, which offers multiple advantages: providing international status, strengthening military allegiance to the regime, and deterring foreign—meaning American—attack. Kim Jong Un, perhaps even more than his father, has identified missile and nuclear developments with his legitimacy. A year ago, Kim declared the North’s deterrent to be complete, which sounded more like a declaration that “we are now safe and can concentrate on economic development” than “we now are ready to give everything away and trust those with whom we have been at war for seven decades.”

Assume Kim is theoretically prepared to negotiate away his entire arsenal, as Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae‐​in apparently believe. The United States does not even know how many nukes the North has. Yet until Pyongyang is convinced denuclearization is a realistic prospect, handing over such a list essentially is providing Washington with a target list in war, as Kim argued to Moon. The president may have fallen “in love” with Kim, but a couple summit meetings obviously were insufficient to convince the latter that comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization would not leave him as vulnerable as the extremely late Muammar al‐​Qaddafi. The United States and North have been enemies separated by violence, ideology, hostility, and war for seven decades. Force of personality and individual charm are not enough to sweep away the past. At the recent summit in Hanoi, Kim reportedly responded to the president’s proposal by saying there was insufficient trust to warrant sacrificing all his nation’s nuclear assets at once.

Thus, the United States should propose concrete steps that reduce threats, build trust, and move along the denuclearization road. Getting there is desirable but not essential. Capping nuclear production, winning formal agreement to end testing, closing down nuclear facilities, inserting inspectors, persuading Pyongyang to supply a nuclear inventory, and reducing the North’s conventional threat against South Korea all would be worth attaining. Negotiations would yield information and suggest options, while success could build on success and make complete and permanent denuclearization more achievable if still not likely.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that success would come easily. However, this approach probably offers the only possible path to denuclearization. Pyongyang must believe that despite disarming it will be secure—that is, it will not be inviting future coercion and even attack by Washington. The fate of such nonnuclear states as Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as nations that abandoned their nukes, most obviously Ukraine and Libya, is hardly encouraging.

North Koreans, including a diplomat with whom I recently spoke, argue that the Singapore statement addressed this concern by setting up a logical sequence: better bilateral relations, an improved regional peace regime, and then denuclearization. Although there’s plenty of reason for skepticism over any North Korean statement, this position makes sense. If the United States and North Korea had a robust bilateral relationship and larger regional tensions had dissipated, Washington would be far less likely to employ force against the North. So the first two steps should be viewed as a means to an end: denuclearization.

Continuing to move forward is important. In his New Year’s Day address, Kim threatened to take “a new way” if negotiations failed. After the summit, his government appeared to be restoring the Tongchang‐​ri missile launch site, which Pyongyang had pledged to dismantle. Already U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton is threatening a major increase in sanctions if North Korea does not abandon its nukes. If the North revives missile and nuclear testing, Trump might renew his “fire and fury” approach. The risk of war could return to 2017 levels.

Much could be done to transform the bilateral relationship. Drop the U.S. ban on travel to and from the North. Increase academic, cultural, and other private exchanges. Establish diplomatic links, such as opening liaison offices in both capitals. Increase the frequency of bilateral conversations, as well as the range of topics, including uncomfortable issues such as human rights. Discuss the economic opportunities that might arise and legal changes by North Korea that would be necessary if sanctions were lifted. Make a peace declaration or negotiate a peace treaty. Host a regional conference to discuss new security architecture as reconciliation advances.

However, though Washington should indicate its willingness to end economic restrictions on North Korea, American officials should underscore the president’s position that concessions cannot be disproportionate. Dropping sanctions, especially multilateral penalties approved by the United Nations, would provide the North with substantial benefits. So the United States should expect a commensurate response, especially an equivalent movement toward denuclearization. The United States should be prepared to move as quickly or slowly as Pyongyang is willing, though Washington naturally would prefer a faster process.

Everything should be “on the table,” as U.S. officials are fond of saying when they want to threaten military intervention. But not war, in this case—but rather, the means to wage war, namely America’s Korea garrison.

Even as the two countries debate the possibility of a nuclear North Korea, a prospect greatly feared by most Korea analysts, many of them insist that Washington should not even consider withdrawing U.S. troops as part of a disarmament deal. This reflects a bizarre sense of priorities.

There is no more important objective than preventing North Korea from gaining the ability to incinerate American cities. If that threat becomes reality, then U.S. involvement in any conflict involving North Korea becomes nearly impossible: For what objective would Washington risk such a catastrophe? The United States would be far safer if it was out of Korea and the North lacked nuclear weapons than if Washington was in the middle of a confrontation with a nuclear‐​armed Pyongyang.

Removing U.S. forces would be a small price to pay to achieve denuclearization. After all, they have not been needed for years. South Korea enjoys vast advantages over the North, possessing 50 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea, and is well able to defend itself.

Some officials see the garrison as aimed at China, but a U.S. Army division does not scare China. Moreover, Seoul is unlikely to allow Washington to use South Korean bases in a war with Beijing that does not involve the defense of South Korea. The South doesn’t want to become the permanent enemy of a big neighbor with a long memory. Friendly governments might see a withdrawal as the beginning of a retreat from Asia, but it would be worth paying a substantial price to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. And the United States could always reconsider its policy if circumstances changed.

Throughout the potentially lengthy negotiating process, Washington should back the South’s attempt to build a long‐​term relationship with the North. Of course, it is possible that Kim has created a giant ruse intended to mislead South Korea, the United States, and almost everyone else. Washington and its allies should remain vigilant to this possibility. However, a number of otherwise cynical Korea observers, including South Korean diplomats with whom I have spoken, have concluded that Kim is different than his father and grandfather. He is no liberal—utterly ruthless when it comes to staying in power, he has cracked down on outside influences while negotiating with the United States. But Kim appears committed to rejuvenating the North Korean economy and obviously enjoys the diplomatic game. He appears to be seeking to reposition the nuclear‐​armed North as a seemingly responsible international player—or at least as responsible as other nuclear powers, such as India and Pakistan.

Washington could live, however uncomfortably, with a nuclear North Korea just as the United States lives with a nuclear Pakistan and India. Deterrence works because Kim and his officials have no interest in departing this world in a radioactive funeral pyre. A nuclear capability would matter less if there were little willingness to use it. The United States should join Seoul in attempting to turn North Korea into a nation uninterested in starting a war or destabilizing the peninsula. Nothing should be taken on trust, of course. But the United States should attempt to encourage pragmatism in Pyongyang.

Unfortunately, the president encouraged talk of failure in Hanoi with his constant obsession with winning and losing. However, the summit should be regarded as another step in a long process of defusing decades of confrontation centered around the Korean Peninsula. The possibility of both peace and denuclearization, however small, is too important not to pursue.

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