Viewed through the distorted lens of the Washington foreign policy establishment, it doesn’t appear that denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea are going particularly well. This, however, is wrong and frankly misleading. It obscures the central national security interest of the North Korean file: peace on the Peninsula.
The Trump administration should begin to use the ongoing discussions as an historic opportunity to turn the page on more than six decades of mutual hostility with North Korea.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man, Kim Yong-Chol, was postponed at the last minute and has yet to be rescheduled. Stephen Biegun, the Trump administration’s special envoy, has yet to talk with his North Korean counterpart, and public reports of Pyongyang expanding a missile facility close to the Chinese border have given jittery analysts in Washington even more apprehension.
Yet given Pyongyang’s negotiating history over the last quarter-century, it would be more surprising if there weren’t any speed bumps and obstacles along the way. To think that Washington and Pyongyang can overcome 65 years of visceral hostility in a matter of a few months would be naive.
The president seems to understand this. He tweeted last week that negotiations continue and that there is no sense in rushing the process. Despite the considerable—and perhaps un-scalable—problems with the U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks, Trump is determined to proceed to a second summit with Kim early next year. Hard-nosed, honest dialogue is the best way for the U.S. to prevent tensions on the Korean Peninsula from returning to the days of “fire and fury.”
The goal of next year’s summit, however, should be about more than insisting on North Korea’s rapid and immediate denuclearization—an objective that, from Kim Jong-un’s vantage point, would be both incredibly foolish and premature. Instead, the next meeting should serve as a starting point for a strategy that focuses on peace on the Korean Peninsula and convinces Kim over the long term that he no longer needs nuclear weapons for his survival.
While it would certainly be ideal if Pyongyang were to agree to quickly eliminate its entire nuclear weapons infrastructure down to the last centrifuge, it is simply not achievable. And that’s okay—much like the United States contained and deterred a far more powerful Soviet Union during the Cold War, the U.S. can do the same with a smaller and poorer North Korea indefinitely courtesy of our massive nuclear and conventional superiority.
In the real world, countries are hesitant to unilaterally disarm for fear of being double-crossed or taken advantage of. This worry is especially applicable to North Korea, a country surrounded by neighbors that are far wealthier and more powerful than it could ever dream to be. The Trump administration’s demand that Pyongyang take significant and concrete steps in the denuclearization process before any concessions are offered is unrealistic. And as Pyongyang has shown over the previous six months, such a maximalist position is pre-programmed to fail. Indeed, if the administration’s approach was workable, it likely would have had some success by now.
Pyongyang is highly unlikely to part ways with its nuclear insurance policy in the current environment, where trust is virtually nonexistent and the bad blood between the U.S. and North Korea is ever potent. In fact, denuclearization may not ever be possible. Peace on the Korean Peninsula, however, is possible.
This is where President Trump should focus his efforts: supporting South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s effort to negotiate peace with Kim Jong-un.
Just as South Korea is determined to co-exist with its neighbor to the north, so too can the United States. Even if it takes many years for Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear deterrent, the U.S. can and indeed should find ways to explore a more productive bilateral relationship with the North Koreans—one that would forever prevent a major conflagration from erupting in the region.
In less than a year, Moon has managed to turn the entire environment around. He has met with Kim Jong-un on three separate occasions, meetings that most did not think possible a year ago, and has made progress toward peace, the ultimate objective.
Moon has signed a comprehensive demilitarization agreement with the North that applies to the DMZ. The Koreas have coordinated de-mining operations and the destruction of guard towers along the heavily militarized border. They have also established working groups where officials and military officers from both countries can collaborate in order to improve communication and limit misunderstandings. And the two Koreas are now in the process of studying the feasibility of reconnecting their rail lines.
While none of these initiatives are separate and apart from the nuclear file, each has helped to create an atmosphere far more constructive than the animosity that prevailed just a year ago.
Instead of limiting these inter-Korean initiatives by insisting on an immediate denuclearization that will not occur, Washington should encourage—and when appropriate, assist—its South Korean allies in continuing to make progress. At the Security Council, the Trump administration can provide U.S. support for inter-Korean reconciliation through sanctions waivers on specific projects like the resumption of tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang that are significant yet allow the U.S. to maintain its leverage.
Many Washington insiders will scoff at these recommendations as a sidebar to the bigger goal of ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons. Others will use fear to push the U.S. towards an unnecessary military confrontation that will lead to major disruptions in the global economy and an enormous loss of life.
Due to its overwhelming firepower and guaranteed victory in the event of a conflict, the United States can deter Kim Jong-un indefinitely. Indeed, the U.S. has already deterred North Korea every single day over the previous 12 years. Kim Jong-un may be an extreme narcissist, but he isn’t suicidal. For a man like Kim whose prevailing aim is regime self-preservation, the U.S. has all the leverage it needs to keep North Korea’s capabilities contained.
If President Trump wants to be fondly remembered by history as the leader who helped solidify peace on the Korean Peninsula and positively transformed U.S.-North Korea relations, he should concentrate on peace with Pyongyang now and save the denuclearization for a later date.
The faster President Trump makes a course correction in his negotiating strategy, the more likely his instincts for a truly groundbreaking deal will be reinforced. On North Korea, the president should ignore the noise from his more interventionist advisors and start pivoting toward a policy of peace first.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.