After the Berlin Wall fell came Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya, Syria, Iraq yet again and Yemen. Then there are the regular threats against Iran. Proposals for war against Venezuela. And the ease with which U.S. presidents have routinely intoned “all options are on the table,” meaning military strikes, against a number of countries—including the DPRK.
Particularly disconcerting to any potential member of the Axis of Evil is Washington’s willingness to violate the spirit if not the letter of its agreements. Poor Muammar el‐Qaddafi: he believed the Americans and Europeans when they toasted his abandonment of his nation’s missile and nuclear programs. Then his supposed friends took him out at the first opportunity when he was vulnerable. Given Washington’s record, Kim would be a fool to trust oral or paper promises. And he is no fool.
So Washington should listen to what he says. The statement at the Singapore summit was short but specific. And North Korean diplomats contend that the order of agreed steps was intended: Washington and Pyongyang would develop their relations, the regional security environment would be improved, and denuclearization would occur. South Koreans reported that Kim observed that multiple meetings between the United States and the North would demonstrate that his nation no longer needed nuclear weapons.
Even if he was serious, it seems unlikely that he would be willing to yield his full deterrent. After all, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement illustrates how a future president could repudiate a Trump administration deal with Kim. Nevertheless, ignoring Pyongyang’s conditions seem certain to preclude denuclearization. Why bother proceeding if failure is certain? Especially since breaking expectations could exacerbate tensions. Indeed, if the president feels betrayed, he could return to “fire and fury,” especially under pressure in an election campaign.
How to meet North Korea’s conditions? Start by ending the U.S. ban on Americans visiting the DPRK and North Koreans visiting the United States. Encourage private individuals and organizations, especially humanitarian NGOs, to establish relationships. Expanding contact promotes a friendlier relationship. Most important, establish diplomatic ties of some sort, such as liaison offices, which were on the agenda in Hanoi.
Easing tensions on the peninsula could be achieved in several ways. One would be relaxing sanctions which inhibit inter‐Korean cooperation. Another would be making a peace declaration or treaty. The war is long over and the belligerents should formally conclude hostilities. Those who fear such an action, who would encourage the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea, mistake symptom for cause. Combat is over and the Republic of Korea is able to defend itself, so America’s military presence should be reconsidered. In making that decision, a peace statement would be makeweight.
Taking such actions would enable the Trump administration to challenge Pyongyang to follow the Singapore schedule and begin moving toward disarmament. The president’s team should develop a schedule of potential small deals that would ultimately lead to full denuclearization.
A good start would be to formalize North Korea’s promise of no nuclear or missile (short‐ and long‐range) tests and America’s commitment to end military exercises on the peninsula. Another would be to negotiate a trade similar to that proposed in Hanoi, closure of Yongbyon in exchange for selective sanctions relief. Conventional disarmament steps also could be included in the process.
If the North is unwilling to do anything it should become evident quite quickly. If Pyongyang ultimately is only willing to move partway down the disarmament road, then the United States (and South Korea) should pocket those benefits. For instance, a DPRK with an arsenal capped at fifteen or sixty (or somewhere in between) warheads and subject to at least some inspections is less dangerous than one expanding to one hundred, two hundred or more—and with no oversight. Some safeguards against proliferation are better than none.
Who knows? If the past is prologue, nothing much might be accomplished. If Kim completes his break with his father and grandfather, perhaps he will make meaningful concessions but halt before full disarmament. And if relations are improved and deals are made, perhaps Kim or his successor might be willing to complete the denuclearization process.
In any case, there’s no way to find out without negotiating. Which requires breaking the post‐Hanoi stalemate. Doing that requires making a best effort. Which in turn requires adopting a strategy calculated to appeal to the North’s obvious interests and address Kim’s expressed conditions.
President Trump courageously began the process of engaging the DPRK. He should complete the effort by following the best negotiating strategy possible.