The art of the possible with North Korea

By Daniel DePetris

Approximately two months since President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore, nuclear diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang is deadlocked—and it could be approaching a breaking point.

President Trump’s postponement of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang last week was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the frustration building on both sides of the negotiating table. The administration is no longer as starry-eyed about Kim Jong-un’s apparent commitment to denuclearize, notwithstanding the president’s once unrestricted optimism. The North Koreans are frustrated by Washington’s resistance to discussing other items in the Singapore statement, including the signing of a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War.

American and North Korean officials are stuck on which side should make the next big move, and neither has been willing to blink first. As Asia expert David Kang argued in The New York Times, “The United States appears to be waiting for the North to take the next step. But the Trump administration is ignoring the reality that to reach a final deal on the eventual denuclearization of North Korea, the United States must give something substantial in return.”

The longer the stalemate lasts, the more likely the process dies completely.

President Trump needs a Plan B. And he needs it fast. Fortunately, there is one on the table that could generate progress: Forget about denuclearization and focus on negotiating a realistic agreement that is actually attainable.

There is no question that dropping the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as an objective would be an enormously difficult thing to do. The politics of such a move would be perilous for the White House, especially after President Trump raised expectations so high about imminent success. Lawmakers would not look kindly on a moving denuclearization to the back burner for now either.

Switching the U.S. policy objective from denuclearization to peace and arms control is a promising path forward that recognizes the reality in front of us: Pyongyang is not likely to surrender their nuclear deterrent, and to continue to insist upon such a demand is a recipe for further deadlock and strategic failure.

Foreign policy is the art of the possible, and right now, a nuclear-free North Korea is beyond our reach.

Instead of beating a dead horse and insisting on something Pyongyang has no intention of providing, American and North Korean officials should adopt a new course that provides something both ultimately want. For the U.S., that would include security and peace in East Asia—this is important for U.S. security and economic prosperity. And for Kim Jong-un, the bottom line would be the guarantee that he can continue to rule North Korea until he dies an old man.

In exchange for a formal commitment from Washington that regime change is off the table, Kim would be required to provide the U.S. with the kinds of significant nuclear concessions that would provide assurances to the international community that the North’s nuclear weapons infrastructure can be monitored, its nuclear stockpile controlled, and its activities verified by a credible third-party.

North Korea, for instance, would need to formalize its nuclear and missile testing suspension; sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention; and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a full member and participant, which entails placing its nuclear arsenal under strict international oversight. Pyongyang would be expected to fully cooperate with any and all International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requests for information and access to personnel, production facilities, and suspected sites, as well as grant a permanent on-the-ground presence to verify Kim’s implementation. The IAEA would have the power to visit any site they wish to probe, and North Korea would be bound to provide it just like any other state under suspicion.

Pyongyang would naturally require concessions of its own from the United States before agreeing to put pen to paper. One of the most effective ways the Trump administration can demonstrate its sincerity would be to take any prospective nuclear accord to the U.N. Security Council for approval. The North Koreans would be far more comfortable limiting its nuclear flexibility if the agreement was endorsed through an international mechanism that can verify compliance on both sides and hold Washington and Pyongyang accountable for any violations.

Such a deal is in many ways a minimalist blueprint of what is possible. Washington and Pyongyang may decide that a bigger accord is within reach, one that perhaps includes the North transferring at least some of its nuclear warheads to international control in return for a clear roadmap toward U.S.-North Korea normalization. Either scenario, however, is more workable than the current denuclearization formula.

How can we be confident that a nuclear-armed North Korea would not fire off a nuclear weapon against the United States, South Korea, or Japan or sell nuclear material to third parties? It would be suicidal for Kim to do so.

Kim Jong-un is a despot, but as anyone could tell by watching him in Singapore, he is a man who wants to enjoy this life. He wishes to rule his people for decades, not aspire for martyrdom. Neither is he reckless or stupid enough to pick a fight with a country that would destroy his own in a matter of days to preempt or respond to any attack. Kim’s primary interest is self-preservation and perpetuation of his family dynasty—using nuclear weapons against the United States or any of our allies would end Kim’s life, and he knows it. Deterrence works.

Focusing on realistic goals that will build trust in the short run while maintaining constructive channels of communication make for far more effective policy than deluded thinking about unilateral denuclearization. The possibility for a unicorn agreement in which the United States gets a document of nuclear surrender from the North Koreans expired as soon as Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test more than a decade ago. There are no panaceas or cost-free resolutions for the United States on the North Korean nuclear issue. But the Trump administration can still effectively manage it without resorting to a war that would be horrific and counterproductive.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on September 6, 2018. Read more HERE.