WASHINGTON, DC – With North Korea’s recent launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the momentum is building for the Trump administration to pursue negotiations on a temporary freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in return for a reduction of American military presence on the Korean Peninsula – what some have termed a “double freeze” proposal. While the option is worthy of exploration, U.S. President Donald Trump and his team should also be wary of the challenges and limitations that it would pose.
The logic behind the double freeze proposal is clear. A quarter century of isolation and engagement has failed to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal, and the Kim Jong-un regime has demonstrated no signs of giving up its nuclear weapons so far. Meanwhile, during this time, U.S. policy options have narrowed and North Korea’s program has grown. It is therefore understandable that some might argue that with the U.S. goal of denuclearization looking less and less likely, Washington should focus more narrowly on just stopping or slowing Pyongyang’s nuclear pursuit.
That said, three cautionary notes are worth highlighting.
First, while one ought not to rule out the double freeze proposal or others like it as worth exploring and testing at some stage, it is unclear whether now is the right time to pursue it.
Though the Trump administration has settled on a strategy of “maximum pressure and maximum engagement,” the reality is that, like previous administrations, it will likely find the need to calibrate and in some cases sequence different aspects of this approach. And for all the calls for a comprehensive policy, when push comes to shove, it will have to choose whether to weigh engagement or pressure more heavily in its overall approach, or pick the order in which it will pursue a series of separate options.
To that point, it is worth recalling that the U.S. record of engagement with North Korea is a rather poor one, and that getting to a double freeze deal with the key terms that Washington desires is likely to be rather arduous. North Korea has broken previously negotiated moratoria in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was much less clear that Pyongyang was wedded to a nuclear program as it appears to be right now. And any new double freeze deal would need to get past some fundamental disagreements, including over the exact scope of the freeze as well as the extent of verification.
Given this, one could easily make the case that given North Korea’s current intransigence as well as the difficulty of getting to any deal, the Trump administration would be better served trying to strengthen its bargaining position relative to Pyongyang before it settles for a double freeze proposal or some variant of it. This could include things like toughening the sanctions regime, strengthening extended deterrence in concert with South Korea and Japan, boosting efforts to undermine North Korea’s nuclear program through cyber and other related activities, and even stepping up pressure for regime change.
Though opponents would contend that building out these lines of effort could excessively pressure North Korea and scuttle an opportunity for a negotiated outcome, it is equally plausible that it could generate the commensurate leverage for the United States to get a better deal.
Second, even if the double freeze is pursued, the Trump administration should be clear about what it is gaining and what it is being given up. For instance, some versions of the double freeze proposal have suggested trading a pause in North Korean nuclear and missile testing in exchange for a temporary halting of U.S.-South Korea exercises. In accepting this, however, Washington would essentially be rewarding Pyongyang for ceasing behavior that is already in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions – a dangerous precedent. It also risks sending confusing signals about how it is equating engagements meant to defend an ally against attack with offensive, provocative moves by an adversary.
This is not to say that some other versions of the freeze could eventually be struck. For example, U.S.-ROK exercises could be scaled back briefly rather than halted or frozen altogether, as Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies suggested in a commentary earlier this week. The focus could also be redirected at less controversial areas, to variations of confidence-building measures or even limited dialogues aimed at preventing future accidents or discussing what kinds of security assurances the North Koreans really require. But the point here is that caution should be exercised as much with respect to the specifics of a double freeze proposal as it is with the idea of such a proposal itself.
Third and finally, even though a double freeze proposal does not necessarily have to mean abandoning the denuclearization goal, the United States needs to be wary that such policies can lead it down a slippery slope to that endpoint and needs to fully grasp both the opportunities and risks that come with this.
The case for easing up on the denuclearization goal, or at least kicking the can down the road on it rather than pressing for it now, is primarily that it increases U.S. flexibility, which could in turn boost the likelihood of striking a deal with North Korea.
But as was mentioned earlier, the opportunity for some kind of diplomatic settlement may be overstated. At the same time, proponents of this may also be understating the risks inherent in such a shift. A move away from the goal of denuclearization, and the recognition of the reality of North Korea as a nuclear state, would, among other things, increase frictions between Washington and its two Northeast Asian treaty allies and send a poor signal to other potential nuclear weapons states in the context of the non-proliferation regime.
It is also worth emphasizing the obvious: that simply stopping or slowing the North Korean nuclear program and dealing with it through a mix of containment or deterrence – in short, “living with a nuclear North Korea” – does not remove the threat it poses. That threat has various dimensions – from proliferation all the way to an actual strike of U.S. allies, U.S. bases, or the homeland in response to an outbreak of hostilities. Furthermore, as Pyongyang’s capabilities grow, it can also become bolder in how it employs them either at the nuclear or conventional level, or even both.
And while one ought to take solace in the fact that deterrence did triumph for decades despite the hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, in applying this to Kim Jong-un it is worth remembering that, even if one assumes his regime’s rationality given the logic of regime survival, the real lesson of the Cold War is that we now know how much closer the two superpowers came to a nuclear war than we thought at the time. Deterrence may work, but it is a gamble and we ought to be a bit more humble about its feasibility and applicability.
The point here is not to rubbish a policy option, but to underscore its challenges and limitations. Victor Cha, a former George W. Bush administration official who dealt with the North Korea problem, famously called it the “land of lousy options.” But in trying to be creative about finding ways to manage this vexing challenge, we should also be careful not to make lousy decisions that can risk undermining, rather than promoting, U.S. interests.