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Holding Out Hope for a North Korea Deal

Over the last few days, the world has once again rediscovered what countless diplomats, scholars, and talking heads across the political spectrum have come to realize in the most painful of fashions: North Korea will always be North Korea [1].

History’s pages are littered with what appeared to be [2] promising bouts of diplomacy only to be followed by heart-breaking failures that almost bring the world to the brink of war.

Such is the case when you are attempting to make a deal with the devil—or a nation that treats its population of 25 million as nothing more than slaves.

While it all seemed so promising—the idea that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un would sit down for a summit with U.S. President Donald J. Trump—Pyongyang might now be having second thoughts [3]. It seems, and quite unexpectedly, that they aren’t taking too kindly to the idea that they would have to give up their nuclear weapons in order to become a full-fledged member of the international community.



While I certainly have my doubts [4]—there is a very real possibility that a U.S.-North Korea summit will not happen—both sides could still decide to press forward with a meeting in Singapore on June 12, in what would be the ultimate diplomatic Hail Mary. Diplomats from both sides could gamble that the pull of making history could help bridge the gap, and forge an agreement that sees the Kim regime at least slowly ridding itself of its nuclear arsenal.

I would argue that there is still a deal to be had that both sides could accept. There is also a very real possibility [5] of a step-by-step approach, where the hermit kingdom gives away pieces of not only its atomic arsenal but also its chemical, biological, and missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief and economic aid. In fact, U.S. officials seem to be dropping hints that this could happen [6], testing the diplomatic waters in the media to see if it will stick.

The terms would be simple: North Korea gives up something, America and its allies give up something. This process would go on for a predetermined period, building trust as both sides make concession after concession, until North Korea no longer has weapons of mass destruction and has either limited greatly or dismantled its missile programs, while enjoying guaranteed security and a path towards economic revitalization. The Korean War would be formally concluded by a peace treaty. The DMZ would become a permanent tourist attraction, no longer manned by soldiers but by ticket booths and souvenir stands.

However, such a deal would have one catch: international inspectors would need to quantify Kim’s WMD and missile arsenal, be allowed to inspect any and all suspected sites—and have unfettered access to anywhere in North Korea they wish to go at any time.

Kim might have a real problem with that, especially if he has his own grand bargain in mind. He might instead stick to his tried and true playbook, pocketing concessions upfront only to string out negotiations for years, all the while hoping to build bigger and badder nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

If that is the case, President Trump needs to give North Korea a one-word answer: no. Trump should shake Kim’s hand, leave the negotiating table, and head back home.

While it might cost the president the Nobel Prize he is surely seeking, he would be doing the world a service, for agreeing to a bad deal with North Korea is far worse than taking no deal at all.

The good news, if there is any, is that America has all the tools to apply its maximum pressure campaign for years—even decades—at very little cost.

While North Korea is clearly a nuclear threat, Washington has a history of dealing with and deterring nations that have such weapons and would seek to do us harm. In fact, we were able to contain and place the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history—a nation that had thousands of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could have turned America into an atomic parking lot many times over without firing a shot.

While our main instruments of foreign policy over the past two decades have been regime change and kinetic conflict, America is very good at using maximum pressure—we use to call it containment during the Cold War—to combat our international adversaries. We would be wise to re-read our own history.

I have a very simple solution when it comes to North Korea: if Pyongyang wants nuclear weapons, great, it can keep them—but the price could prove fatal.

The Kims would be labeled international pariahs for as long as they keep their weapons, forever ensuring that the north will have an economy one third the state of Rhode Island’s that will remain impoverished, underdeveloped, and literally cut out of the global map. They might have nukes, but nothing else.

No nation can last like that forever. In fact, North Korea should be careful, as the outside world is penetrating [7] its once remote villages and small towns ever more frequently. The average North Korean is starting to realize that they don’t live in the communist paradise the Kim family assures them they do. While it might not happen now or even a decade from now, history tells us that tin-pot dictators can only put down the march of freedom for so long. And with North Korea possibly on the verge of financial ruin [8], Kim should make his next move very carefully.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula [9]) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm The National Interest. Previously, he led the foreign policy communications efforts of the Heritage Foundation, and served as editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET. The views expressed are his own.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Holding Out Hope for a North Korea Deal"

#1 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On May 21, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

They might have nukes, but nothing else.
No nation can last like that forever.

Self-awareness is evidently not a strong suite of American pundits.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 22, 2018 @ 1:00 am

If there were any treaty, sanctions would be re-established as soon as convenient to the ultimate U.S. aim for regime change. What else could be more predictable when dealing with any imperial power, as history clearly shows, and not just recently?

Realistically, with our empire policymakers now talking up China as an enemy too, the PRC is not going to let the U.S. do a NATO-style military occupation of Korea right up to their own borders as happened to a once-trusting Russia that decided to come in from the cold war.

#3 Comment By Fred Bowman On May 22, 2018 @ 9:28 am

Why would Kim even want a deal with the US? Surely he knows the history of Iraq and Libya. Also with Trump reneging on the Iran deal, if I was Kim I would very hesitate about cutting a deal with the Trump Administration as I would be concerned of the US holding up it’s end of the bargain.

#4 Comment By b. On May 22, 2018 @ 10:10 am

“I have a very simple solution when it comes to North Korea”

Why would one want to continue?

#5 Comment By BobS On May 22, 2018 @ 11:15 am

I didn’t realize there was a deal for the North Koreans to renege on. Unlike the US reneging on the JCPOA.
Other leaders would be foolish to make any deal with our rogue nation, particularly after the fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

#6 Comment By Egypt Steve On May 22, 2018 @ 11:35 am

So — we give them economic aid in advance, in exchange for incomplete de-nuclearization and an unclear final end-game. Sounds like you’re advocating the Iran deal, except that you’re leaving NK with actual nukes, not a few centrifuges. But you know what, Trump will probably go for it.

#7 Comment By Will Harrington On May 22, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

Janwaar Bibi

The one thing that can not be said about the US is that it has nukes, but nothing else.

#8 Comment By Chris On May 22, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

Great to see those suffering “U.S. Imperialist” Derangement Syndrome out in full swing. There’s nothing wrong with seeking regime change in a nation oppressing millions of it’s own people like North Korea. Do everything possible to cut them off economically, and conduct massive information operations aimed at the North Korean people, and the North Korean problem will take care of itself eventually.

#9 Comment By polistra On May 22, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

The deal is already done. At this point it doesn’t matter what Trump does. Moon is clearly humoring Baby Donnie, letting him have the consolation prize. In fact US has been factored out of the equation. We don’t exist.

It’s the same with Persia. We bluster and roar and impose more sanctions, but the sanctions are physically meaningless. Among US companies, only Boeing had restarted trade with Persia, and its defense branch will gain more from the prospect of war than its airliner branch loses from the reimposed sanctions. Euro companies no longer pay any attention to our incoherent screeching.

#10 Comment By Egypt Steve On May 22, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

Re: “and the North Korean problem will take care of itself eventually.”

Yes, but “eventually” is pretty open ended. You could truthfully say that “the North Korean problem will take care of itself eventually” no matter what we do or do not do. But short-term, pursuing regime change NK has the potential to unleash chaos vastly greater than the chaos from our misbegotten regime change policies in the ME — chaos with loose nukes in the mix. No thanks. This may happen “eventually,” but we’d be nuts to hurry it along.

#11 Comment By sglover On May 22, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

With a galaxy of genuinely interesting and astute foreign policy observers out there, TAC opts, yet again, to print scribblings from some fool in the “National Interest” clown show (this one “boasts” a Heritage pedigree, no less).

One wonders, can Kazianis read a map? Because if he could, he might notice that North Korea actually shares borders with two states that can yank the rug out from his “strategy” on a whim. In this reality, as distinct from Kazianis fantasy land, Russia and China have effective veto power over any lame-brained scheme to make Pyonyang even more of a pariah than it already is.

None of North Korea’s neighbors, including South Korea, a genuine American ally, have any desire to see a social and economic implosion on their borders. Perhaps they have a say in practice, beyond whatever farcical agreement Trump might manage to pull off (and the emphasis here is definitely on “might”)? Kazianis “plan” doesn’t seem like anything more than a proposal to treat northeast Asia as a kind of hostage in perpetuity. Further, he proposes to do this in a world which may very soon move from working around the U.S. (as is happening now), to actively combining against it. I don’t know why Kazianis didn’t wrap up his LSD flashback with a rousing “and then our minotaur legions will mount their dragons and fly across the DMZ”.

How is it that TAC, which purports to oppose the “foreign policy blob” so regularly goes to that very source for — what? Half-thought-through fantasies about how America can prevail simply by shouting louder? Kazianis is a glorified used car dealer, except that’s he’s selling a lousier product, in a more dishonest fashion than the norm. Congrats, TAC.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 22, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

There is a good argument to be made – and Mark Whitney makes it – that Kim Jong-un doesn’t really need an agreement with Trump, but he does need to de-nuclearize. Kim has to de-nuclearize in order “to meet the minimal requirements of his economic partners in Beijing, Moscow and Seoul”:

“The North doesn’t want Washington’s money or its economic inducements. The North wants assurances that the US will not attack it in the future. That’s it. That’s what Kim wants. He wants an end to the hostilities so he can move ahead with a regional economic-integration plan that will draw the two Koreas closer together, end the North’s isolation, strengthen the North’s economy, and pave the way for prosperity…The North is not motivated by Trump’s hysterical threats of ‘total destruction’, but by a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to emerge from its long-term seclusion and become an active participant in an ambitious economic integration plan that will link North and South Korea to the rest of Asia via massive infrastructure and energy projects. The only catch to this proposal, is that the DPRK must abandon its nuclear weapons program and agree to resolve its issues with Seoul. In other words, Kim’s eagerness to denuclearize is not an attempt to placate Washington, but an effort to meet the minimal requirements of his economic partners in Beijing, Moscow and Seoul… Moscow, Beijing and Seoul have all made denuclearization a basic requirement for participation in their economic integration plan, so it’s a done deal. Kim is going to have to abandon his nuclear weapons. The fact is, Russia and China don’t want the smaller, surrounding nations to have nukes any more than the US wants Mexico, Canada or Cuba to have them. It dramatically impacts regional security…Kim does not need to reach an agreement with Trump, he merely has to convince his main trading partner, Beijing, that he’s made a sincere effort that was rejected by an unreasonable and tyrannical Washington. If Kim proves that he’s willing to go the extra mile for peace– by offering to decommission his nuclear arsenal– then Beijing is going to reward his behavior by easing the sanctions and restoring the DPRK’s economic lifeline. Bottom line: Kim is going to win one way or another.”


#13 Comment By dbrize On May 22, 2018 @ 5:04 pm


A harsh though appropriate assessment and takedown.


Your endorsement of global policing and ah, “imperialism” by VOA and leaflets is so 1960’s. They will love us if we starve them. Worked so far, right. Where is Michael Ledeen when needed?

#14 Comment By Blimbax On May 23, 2018 @ 1:45 am

The article is certainly an embarrassment, but maybe TAC prints something like this occasionally in order to provide some useful contrast.

#15 Comment By RenoDino On May 23, 2018 @ 8:44 am

So much wrong with this article. Where to begin? North Korea doesn’t want to be welcomed to the international community. It wants to be accepted as a member of the nuclear club. From there it will negotiate terms for mutual disarmament if the conditions are right. That means the U.S. will have to disarm as well. International inspectors would have to prowl both sides. How likely is that?

Next, the sanction campaign against N.K. is basically already over because China has relented on what little it was previously doing. The border is open and goods are flowing. Russia is doing the same. Maximum pressure is a maximum joke.

As for the Soviet Union being defeated, we are now looking down the barrel of Russia’s new generation of strategic weapons that render most of our assets obsolete.

If N.K. keeps its weapons the results won’t prove fatal. Trump has suddenly realized that he’s not dealing with Iraq or Libya. He’s dealing with a country that has obtained a security guarantee from China. Attack N.K. and it’s game over for all sides.

And how would Trump know that Kim is going to break the deal months or years from now? He doesn’t even know his own mind and won’t commit to anything.

#16 Comment By Wizard On May 24, 2018 @ 8:19 am

The author talks about NK reneging on the deal, apparently overlooking the fact that the Trump administration clearly doesn’t want a deal. Both the mad dog Bolton and the lapdog Pence have been barking about Libya, which is the stupidest thing they could possibly do if they wanted a deal. The Libyan example is exactly why Kim has no interest in giving up nuclear weapons. Qaddafi gave up his weapons and played nice, only for the US to stab him in the back for no good reason. (You want to say Qaddafi was a terrible guy? No argument, and I’m shedding no tears for him personally. But his overthrow and death left Libya in shambolic, deadly chaos that continues to this day, and unleashed a flood of weapons to other trouble spots.) NK has no chance in a conventional war, so nukes are Kim’s best hope for deterring US-imposed “regime change”.

NK shouldn’t be America’s problem in the first place. The idea that they pose any significant threat to the US is simply ludicrous. The only reason they’re in a position to hurt us at all is because of the troops we have stationed on their doorstep. SK, China and Japan have legitimate reasons to worry about NK, so let them work it out.

#17 Comment By Con Spirosy On May 28, 2018 @ 4:26 am

Trump is a sleeper Russian Agent. They must have slapped their backs in astonishment when he was surprisingly elected. So the end game is Trump does a deal with NK and wins the Nobel Peace prize. America militarily pulls out of South Korea which is then conventionally invaded by the North. As with the Crimea occupation is 10/10ths of international law and there will be no amphibious US operations to retake South Korea as there was in the 50’s. Simultaneously China will invade its rogue Provence Taiwan with the same outcome. So Democracy 0, Commies 2.
Trump will have his Trump Tower in Moscow but it will be built by the Russians in honour of their greatest agent.