Realistic Expectations for U.S. Diplomacy with North Korea
Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang look ahead to the possible Trump-Kim summit and what both sides might be willing to offer. Here they explain why North Korea’s denuclearization is very unlikely to happen:
The historical record of voluntary denuclearization does not provide much encouragement. Three former Soviet states relinquished the nuclear weapons they inherited on their soil after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. But unlike North Korea, none had the codes or ability to use them. More importantly, Russia wanted the weapons back, and the United States wanted Russia to have them back. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which initiated the transfer of nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia, is often erroneously regarded as a security guarantee for Ukraine in exchange for surrendering the weapons and for recognition of Ukraine. In fact, it doesn’t commit the parties to anything in defense of Ukraine, which was illustrated when Russia annexed Crimea and Western parties to the agreement did little to defend Ukrainian territorial integrity.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons are regime and invasion insurance that are indigenously produced and managed. They are additionally a symbol of Kim’s legitimacy and one half of his byungjin line — his grand strategic design to bring North Korea economic prosperity alongside nuclear weapons. Unlike the former Soviet states, there is little doubt that North Korea can use its weapons today. It is unlikely to give them up in any analogous fashion to Ukraine (or Belarus and Kazakhstan), even for explicit security guarantees which are unenforceable in the future.
Panda and Narang note that North Korea has good reason not to trust such security guarantees in light of what happened to Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi after they ended their unconventional weapons programs. Even if the U.S. had not made a practice of attacking and deposing leaders that had already agreed to disarm, North Korea has already invested significant resources and time into building its nuclear arsenal and presumably wouldn’t trade that away for anything less than major concessions. As things stand now, North Korea has no incentive to give up its arsenal, and a policy aimed at forcing that outcome seems sure to fail. If we want diplomacy with North Korea to succeed, and we all should, the first thing to do is to stop demanding something that the other side will never agree to.
Supposing that the U.S. and its allies dropped this demand, what then? There should be a way to negotiate an end to the present standoff with North Korea, but to do that the U.S. and its allies need to have realistic expectations about what they can get and what they will be expected to give up. A first step would be to establish military contacts to prevent incidents and misunderstandings from escalating into a larger conflict. The U.S. should also insist on the release of all Americans held in North Korea before the talks go any further. Negotiating a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missile tests in exchange for the reduction or suspension of military exercises might be possible. If that round of negotiations goes well, the U.S. and its allies could test North Korea’s willingness to consider limitations on its arsenal and the creation of a verification process to back up any arms limitation agreement. From there the U.S. could proceed to discussions of a formal peace treaty and full normalization of relations.
If we are going to learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, it is important for our government to start having regular diplomatic contacts with theirs, and that needs to begin as soon as possible.