Trump‐​Kim II: Even a Modest Success Would Be a Success

This article appeared in National Interest (Online) on February 27, 2019.
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No one knows what President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will agree to at their second summit. However, speculation suggests a modest agenda which advances both engagement and denuclearization. Even small steps should be counted a success if they lead to progress by both sides in the future.

Under any other president, the shift from war threats to peace promises would be considered a major achievement. Applause would greet any other American leader who won suspension of Pyongyang's nuclear and missiles tests, now entering its second year. The North Korean leader's departure from veritable recluse in Pyongyang to having his ninth summit in less than a year would have been treated as little short of miraculous if the president responsible was someone other than Donald Trump.

Of course, no one should suspend critical judgment and ignore past failed agreements. However, it would be even more foolish to dismiss evidence that Kim's aims differ in important ways from those of his father and grandfather. The Supreme Leader is no liberal, but he might be the kind of authoritarian that one can do business with, however reluctantly. Washington should pursue the possibility, however modest, of a breakthrough, which could ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the most militarized piece of real estate on earth, even if it fell short of full nuclear disarmament.

In this case the perfect is a potentially deadly enemy of the good. Of course, immediate denuclearization would be the best result. However, it is unlikely, especially in the short-term. The United States has an overwhelming conventional military advantage over all but a few industrialized competitors. And Washington has demonstrated its willingness to use that superiority against any regime for any reason. But the nuclear weapons are the great equalizer. The price of surrendering that deterrent became brutally obvious on October 20, 2011, when former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, who yielded his nuclear and missile programs in a deal with the West, suffered a gruesome death after his overthrow.

Even if Kim is prepared to make a deal, as the president believes he is, the North Korean leader will not surrender his leverage at the start. Former real estate mogul Donald Trump would never employ such a negotiating strategy. What would convince Kim to yield his nukes? He gave his answer at last year's summit: improve the bilateral relationship and create a peace regime. That makes sense. A steadily deepening relationship amid a steadily improving international environment would make surrender of nuclear weapons more plausible, even if unlikely, which suggests that the only hope of achieving denuclearization is to first expand engagement in this way.

The chances of success may be small, but they are certainly better today than at any other time in recent history, and probably since July 27, 1953, which is when the armistice was signed. The opportunity should be pursued and the president is pursuing it while under fire from both right and left.

Republican legislators and officials have adopted a dangerous commitment to confrontation and war, irrespective of region or circumstance. Their efforts have spanned across the globe, from Venezuela, to Russia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, China, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. To the GOP congressional caucus war is like the famous Hotel California in the Eagles' song: Congress can fail to declare war but the executive can never stop fighting.

The equally united Left takes a more cynical view: whatever the president does is bad. Thus, political progressives now embrace the CIA and FBI, laud George W. Bush and John McCain, and support multiple wars in the Middle East, confrontation with Moscow, and military threats against North Korea. Overall, the president is almost alone in seeking to defuse a very cold war that periodically turns hot.

What will emerge from the summit remains speculation, but in Vox Alex Ward distilled what others also had been heard in recent days. The four key steps would be: 1) approve a peace declaration ending the Korean War, which was halted only by an armistice; 2) cooperate in the return of the remains of additional U.S. servicemen; 3) establish liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang; and 4) trade a halt in North Korean production of nuclear materials for U.S. support to lift some UN sanctions inhibiting joint economic projects between the DPRK and Republic of Korea.

Ward complained that “the current agreement looks like a huge win for Kim,” but “not so much” for America. However, he undervalues the apparent deal for the United States.

If carried out, a key condition, obviously, these four steps offer the potential for steadily expanding engagement and denuclearization. The first three are easy to implement. The fourth is not self-enforcing, but its terms are balanced and reasonable. A North Korean failure to abide by its promises would quickly become evident once timetables and requirements are negotiated.

The declaration helps satisfy Pyongyang’s desire for a peace regime. Such a statement would recognize the obvious, that fighting is over, leaving Washington more reluctant to arbitrarily unleash its military after declaring that peace reigns. This also would offer a clear path to a treaty formally ending the war. Such a pact would be a dramatic symbolic affirmation of the peninsula’s changed status.

Retrieving the remains of the fallen is a highly emotional issue for families and the armed services. Accelerating this process would provide obvious benefits to them. It also would expand cooperation between the two nations’ militaries. This would help prepare for what would be an extremely complex and challenging process of dismantling nuclear weapons and removing nuclear materials. If the North Koreans followed through with denuclearization, the potential for mistakes and misunderstandings would be substantial. It would be better if both militaries had experience dealing with one another.

Opening even low-level diplomatic relations promises substantial benefits. At the most practical level, the two governments would be better able to address common, even mundane problems. The Kaesong inter-Korean liaison office hosted nearly three hundred meetings just last fall. A U.S.-North Korea tie would create a regular channel of communication, something important in almost all circumstances, but vitally so when involving nuclear powers with a war and decades of hostility between them.

And there is no reason to stop with a liaison office. It should swiftly be turned into a consulate, with an embassy to eventually follow. This is another way to address North Korea’s insistence on a better relationship. Treating the North like other nations would be a powerful indication that bilateral ties had been transformed. No longer would Pyongyang be a pariah under siege by the United States. This step should be buttressed by ending the travel ban to and from the DPRK.

Finally, closing the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, presumed to be the only facility where plutonium currently is produced, would be a dramatic step that would limit if not end the North’s ability to construct plutonium weapons. Easing restrictions on inter-Korean projects would deepen the bilateral Korean bond, which is the true foundation of peace on the peninsula. After all, in theory Washington is there to defend South Korea.

Arranging a successful swap of this nature would open the way to a more comprehensive denuclearization agreement involving the exchange of weapons and ultimately missiles for other benefits, such as lifting sanctions, joining international organizations, and more. Even if such an expansion was thwarted, then closing Yongbyon could help enforce a nuclear freeze, which alone would be a major advance. Turning a hostile, confrontational DPRK with an ongoing nuclear program and expanding nuclear arsenal into a peaceable, cooperative DPRK without an active program and a fixed nuclear arsenal would be an achievement well worth “appeasement,” as most any moderate response to the North is termed by the president’s critics.

The Korean standoff is more than seven decades in the making. It won’t disappear overnight. Even setting the relationship on a slowly improving course will be difficult—a task at which all those coming before President Trump failed. From December 1945, when the Soviets chose Kim Il-sung as Korean leader of their northern occupation zone, until now only three North Koreans have ruled. During that time there have been thirteen U.S. presidents.

Now President Trump has a chance to do what none of his predecessors did. Even a modest agreement could have great impact if it becomes the basis for ongoing changes and reforms. That would leave the United States far better off than when President Trump first confronted the issue.