How to Solve the North Korea Crisis Once and for All

This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on September 22, 2019.
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Talks with North Korea have essentially been stalled since February's Hanoi Summit. Despite great hopes after the July handshake meet-up at Panmunjom, nothing more has developed. U.S. officials predicted imminent negotiations. The North Koreans threatened to choose a different path—and undertook a series of short-range missile tests.

However, Choe Son Hui, first vice foreign minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, offered to begin talks. But she added a warning: “if the U.S. side fingers again the worn-out scenario which has nothing to do with new decision methods at the DPRK-U.S. working negotiation to be held with so much effort, the DPRK-U.S. dealings may come to an end.” That is, unless Washington offers something more, Pyongyang will walk. Punctuating her comment was the launch of two projectiles, likely short-range missiles.

Obviously, there is more than a little theater in the North Korean “offer.” It obviously is intended to increase the North’s negotiating leverage. But it also reflects Chairman Kim Jong-un’s stated position and perceived interests. Washington should take it seriously.

How to negotiate with Pyongyang over its nukes? First, be realistic. With John Bolton out as national security adviser, perhaps President Donald Trump will be more willing to abandon his expectation of getting the DPRK to turn over all its nukes within a year or so.

Irrespective of what Kim has said, almost all his incentives run against yielding the North’s arsenal. The dynasty has invested heavily in nuclear weapons—prestige as well as resources. The regime’s nukes and missiles cause other nations to pay attention to the poor, small, isolated and otherwise irrelevant nation. Acquiring the weapons of a superpower also rewards the military for its loyalty.

Most important, nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent. As Henry Kissinger once observed, even paranoids have enemies. Kim could possess aggressive designs, like his grandfather, but the destruction visited on the North during the Korean War is a strong argument against any renewed attack. In contrast, the United States has regularly imposed regime change or otherwise coerced small states. The list is long, especially after the Soviet Union collapsed, when Washington viewed itself as the unipower, the hyper-power, the essential nation, the decider and more.

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.