Peace in Korea is more likely—and important—than denuclearization

By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, Ret.

Amid the chaos of the president’s engagement strategy with North Korea, one thing remains crystal clear: So long as the Administration believes they can get Kim Jong-un to denuclearize without giving anything in return, the talks will go nowhere. That’s not as dire as it may sound, however.

On Thursday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he and new envoy Stephen Biegun would be headed to Pyongyang next week. Friday afternoon, Trump quashed their departure via Twitter, saying he felt there had not been “sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Since the much ballyhooed summit between Trump and Kim in June, relations between Pyongyang and Washington have been quiet. Pompeo went back to Pyongyang for a follow-up meeting in July, but Kim refused to meet him. North Korea returned 55 sets of remains of presumed U.S. war dead—the first in nine years—from the Korean War last month.

Aside from the vaguely worded joint statement following the Singapore summit, there have been no implementation agreements or firm declarations of deliverables and timelines agreed to by either side. Washington seeks the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) while Pyongyang seeks an amorphous, phased approach to “denuclearization” of the peninsula.

Part of the reason for the lack of actions may have been that the administration is trying to compel Kim to completely give us his nuclear arsenal before receiving anything in return—something Kim is almost certain to refuse.

On July 25th, Pompeo told U.S. senators that until “North Korea eliminates its weapons of mass destruction, our sanctions, and those at the United Nations, will remain in effect,” implying Pyongyang must give up all its weapons and missiles before it gets anything in return.

That is certainly the impression North Korean came away with, as a spokesman for their Foreign Ministry reiterated their view that taking “phased” and synchronous” steps by both the United States and North Korea are the only way to settle the complex matter.

Pompeo apparently told North Korean negotiators that the United States required full disarmament before giving anything in return during his early July visit to Pyongyang. The response from North Korea was swift and blunt. Their Foreign Ministry released a statement following Pompeo’s visit, “the attitude and demands from the U.S. side during the high-level talks were nothing short of deeply regrettable,” and reflected “gangster-like” demands.

Negotiations and diplomacy are still the best route for the administration, but if we are to have any chance of success, we are going to have to accept that in order to get something major, we’re going to have to give something major. Our objective should be peace and diplomacy, not a hard-lined call for denuclearization. If we’re not willing to give anything the negotiations are not likely to produce the full CVID the president seeks. It is critical to point out, however, that while definitely preferable, CVID is not a requirement. Preventing war is.

Preserving American security and protecting U.S. economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region are our vital, strategic interests—and they must be Trump’s top objectives. Those aims are realistic, within our power to accomplish, and can be attained in cost-effective ways. Reagan’s classic “peace through strength” is the vehicle through which American interests can best be maintained with North Korea.

It’s time to consider that “peace through strength” doesn’t mean the perpetual deployment of the Armed Forces, but rather a rational, cost-effective standard of strength that, once reached, allows the U.S. to avoid unnecessary, costly, and counterproductive wars of choice. The fact is that right now, Regan’s goals have largely been accomplished.

Because of our overwhelming superiority of nuclear and conventional military power in relation to the world, let alone North Korea, the president can keep the country safe, literally indefinitely. Our nuclear arsenal is orders of magnitude stronger and more reliable than anything Kim Jong-un will ever possess. No one recognizes this fact more than Kim, and thus he is deterred from using his nuclear weapons in an offensive way because he knows he would be obliterated minutes later.

Our conventional force—while admittedly overstretched and overused on nation building, counterinsurgency, and small wars in the years since 9/11—is substantially stronger than even the million-man army Kim commands, and he likewise would never risk conducting ground, air, or sea operations that would result in clashes with the U.S. military.

This is the reason we fund a world-class Armed Forces, so we can deter potential adversaries like North Korea, enjoying the peace that results from our strength.

Talks and diplomacy are the best path to bringing peace to the Korean peninsula, and seeking CVID is a worthy long-term goal. If we are to have a realistic chance to achieve it, Washington must accept that to get something major, it must give something major. The good news for all Americans, however, is that the economic power that serves as the foundation of our military power will keep us safe, indefinitely, regardless of how negotiations eventually play out.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on August 27, 2018. Read more HERE.