Multiple Senior White House aides have confirmed to the American Conservative that the Trump Administration is now considering new proposals to achieve what the White House hopes would be a “breakthrough” in what are now long-dormant talks with North Korea. If a deal can be struck, the hope is that the agreement would be signed in a potential third summit this Fall, in an Asian capital within train or flying distance of Pyongyang.
None of this is shocking, per se. Both the Trump administration and the Kim regime have made passing references about a potential meeting for several weeks now. And while Pyongyang has sent conflicting messages on whether a summit is of firm interest—Chairman Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, for example, offered very mixed messages about a potential meeting in a press statement last week—the White House is working under the assumption that there is enough of a chance that the Kim regime is interested that it is “worth making the attempt.”
The Early Idea That Failed: A Return to the Six-Party Style Talks?
Back in the spring, White House officials working with the State Department and members of the U.S. intelligence community considered an idea to resurrect a multilateral framework to entice North Korea back to the bargaining table and not restart long-range missile testing that could threaten the U.S. homeland in the future.
Based on the idea of the old six-party talks of the 2000s—a format that while having achieved an important joint statement in 2005, collapsed time and time again—was to bring into the fold Russia and China as potential partners. The hope was that a format for long-term talks that could result in a deal would be established, and that bringing in North Korea’s two closest allies along with Japan and “at least one other partner,” according to a State Department source, could achieve a breakthrough.
So what happened? One White House official explained that it was never clear if Trump ever really fully supported the plan in the first place. However, he was willing to give it a try, especially if it would bring North Korea back into a set negotiation process and spark a potential summit. Another White House source explained that Pyongyang was pitched the idea sometime last month but it “went nowhere.”
What Format, What to Offer and Timing
Undeterred, at least for now, Team Trump is developing an idea of a bilateral summit that will achieve clear deliverables for both sides. They clearly do not want a summit that can be slammed as a photo-op and can, as Secretary Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday, only hold a meeting if it “can make real progress.” While White House sources were clear there is still an ongoing debate on what to offer North Korea, the idea is to pitch something where Trump can’t be called weak by the Joe Biden campaign and offers North Korea enough where they will take at least, what was called by one White House official, a “modest step” towards denuclearization.
For the moment, the idea is to offer a “customized package of sanctions relief” according to two White House sources in exchange for a reciprocal package that includes the dismantlement of one or more key nuclear production facilities as well as a formal nuclear and missile testing moratorium pledge. There is also interest, this time according to a State Department source, of securing a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear weapons production as well as the halting of production of any fissile material as well as missile production.
To many Korea watchers, such a package might seem similar to others that have been on offer in the past, especially the deal that was constructed during the 2019 Hanoi Summit: North Korea would have traded the sprawling 300-plus building and nuclear complex at Yongbyon for an end to the most crippling of UN Security Council sanctions.
Would the administration really just pitch the same old deal or something similar? Sources in Trumpland I spoke to understand that for both sides, going back to the same deal won’t work. However, what the White House hopes to do is see what sanction or sanctions could be rolled back for each concession North Korea specifically is willing to make, with the goal of understanding what value can be placed on each trade. “We need to know what value they place on things and what might be a reasonable offer—that’s how we will know if a deal is really possible,” explained one White House source. “We are willing to trade concession for concession and are willing to put a lot of new things on the table and truly get creative and take some risks we have not in the past. We just need to know what North Korea is looking for. We want to make this work.”
Then, there are of course other items that could be of mutual interest that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Both sides in Hanoi expressed strong interest in ending the Korean War in a non-binding political declaration—knowing the U.S. Senate would most likely not ratify a formal peace treaty—an idea that is still very much in play within White House circles. In fact, many within the administration, as well as outside supporters, love that idea of an end of war declaration as a way for Trump to claim a page in history, ending a conflict that technically qualifies as the longest active conflict in U.S. history, commemorating its 70th anniversary just several weeks ago.
As one Trump 2020 campaign official noted: “Ending the Korean War not only helps President Trump achieve a historic milestone but it’s something that if the timing is right, say in October, allows us a win Democrats would have a hard time blunting. How do you run against peace? You can’t without looking like a sore loser or jealous.”
Why It Might Not Happen: How America Wants to Negotiate
While there is clear optimism that a summit and deal is possible, White House officials concede that they worry North Korea might not come to the table, knowing that Trump’s relection chances are clearly in doubt. “We could make an offer to North Korea that is strong, clear and very much in their interest—and never hear back. Things like this with Pyongyang happen quite a bit, and if they think Trump is going to lose, that could give them pause,” explained one State Department official.
The White House is also worried that when it comes down to negotiating the particulars—if North Korea will meet to negotiate, that is—that State Department Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun, Trump’s North Korea special representative, will not have a counterpart that can negotiate on the Kim family’s behalf, a problem that has hampered countless U.S.-North Korea negotiations stretching back decades.
In fact, one of the reasons that many in the administration point to the Hanoi summit failing was that North Korean negotiations in working-level talks leading up to the meeting had no power to negotiate anything on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. At the time, North Korea’s diplomats said anything involving denuclearization would only be discussed by Kim Jong-un himself at the “leader to leader level,” and that he had a “big present” for Donald Trump. At the time, the U.S. almost ended the talks over this as well as the summit, but President Trump decided to go forward, according to a South Korean diplomat based in Seoul that has knowledge of the negotiations.
What Could Create an Opening for U.S. Compromises: China
That brings us to the real X-factor in all of this, and that is the wishes, and ideas of Donald Trump and his obsession with taking on China. White House officials as well as one former 2016 campaign aide still close to Trump detailed how the administration is clearly making China the top national security priority in Asia—not North Korea, for the “foreseeable future.”
That, of course, will have regional and in fact global ramifications and could push Team Trump to offer more to Pyongyang now or in the future, as Senior Trump Administration officials worry Beijing might use the Kim regime in some sort of weaponized fashion, as ninety percent of North Korea’s external trade flows through China. At any point, Beijing, angry at what it perceives as a U.S. strategy of containing its aspirations, could decide to simply open the border, meaning the end of U.S. pressure on North Korea in any meaningful way.
One idea worth considering would be to put nuclear weapons at the end of a normalization process that champions arms control and not denuclearization. If America could just end its foolish obsessions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and seek to mitigate the overall threat instead of holding onto some John Bolton-like atomic surrender from Pyongyang, a whole host of policy options in Asia would present themselves. If America can live with a nuclear Russia, China, and Pakistan why not North Korea? No White House official would touch that question, at least for now.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, a bipartisan foreign policy think tanks founded by former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. You can follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula.