In a stunning and unexpected move, President Donald Trump announced last week that he will meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — setting the stage for the first-ever presidential-level U.S.-North Korea summit. His announcement came after a South Korean delegation, en route back from Pyongyang, visited the White House, and told Trump that they believed Kim was “frank and sincere” about talking to the United States about denuclearization.
After a year where breakthroughs seemed impossible amid continuous North Korean nuclear and missile testing, has South Korea managed to find an opening that might lead to denuclearization of, and peace on, the Korean Peninsula? Or are we simply witnessing yet another episode of North Korea stringing Seoul and Washington along, with the ultimate goal of breaking their alliance? The optimists’ fantasy is that Trump could convince Kim to relinquish his nuclear weapons as a unilateral concession, while pessimists fear that Kim will tell Trump to take a hike, thereby cementing the path to war.
As is often the case, however, the most realistic outcome lies somewhere in the middle. With sufficient preparation and expectations properly set, the United States could make progress with North Korea short of denuclearization — progress that will ultimately be stabilizing, reduce the risk of war, and perhaps even cap North Korea’s nuclear force development. Getting to that “good” outcome will require coming to terms with the idea that the “perfect” goal — complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization — is not really on the table, even if Kim says it is.
How We Got Here
After their visit to Pyongyang, the South Korean envoys released a six-point statement outlining their understanding of what Kim had agreed to. Notably, the statement announced: “North Korea showed its resolve for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula … there is no reason for them to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats to the north are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed.” Furthermore, according to the South, the North signaled that it was willing to begin discussions with the United States on this issue and “made it clear that it will not resume strategic provocations such as additional nuclear tests or ballistic missile tests while the dialogue continues.”
Importantly, as of this writing, the announcement has not been corroborated by authoritative North Korean sources. A diplomat at the North Korean mission to the United Nations spoke to the Washington Post about the upcoming summit, but simply attributed the fact of the invitation to Kim’s “broad minded and resolute decision.” (The word “denuclearization” is nowhere to be seen in any North Korean statements.)
Nevertheless, after meeting with Kim in Pyongyang, National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, and South Korea’s spy chief Suh Hoon headed to Washington to tell Trump that they believed Kim was “sincere.” Despite concerns raised by his advisors, Trump accepted the invitation, reportedly on the spot, and Chung announced the news at a hastily-arranged press conference in the White House driveway. It was South Korea-led shuttle diplomacy in full swing.
Nearly a week later, significant confusion persists. It remains unclear both what the South Koreans heard from Kim in Pyongyang and what they told Trump. Chung’s statement in Washington suggested that he had told Trump that denuclearization will be on the table when the U.S. president meets Kim. It’s unclear if Chung clarified the longstanding North Korean conditionality around denuclearization. Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification says it has received no official communication from North Korea about a U.S.-North Korea summit, casting doubt over the entire enterprise. South Korean sources reportthat the Blue House (the presidential office) is holding its cards close, with just a handful of officials maintaining full knowledge of what exactly transpired in Pyongyang. For their part, Japan and China have been understandably concerned about being sidelined, having been blindsided by the whirlwind South Korean diplomacy, even further complicating alliance management and diplomacy on the Peninsula.
All this leaves an uneasy impression that South Korea is shuttling between the United States and North Korea trying to orchestrate a diplomatic opening based on very little overlap in preferences between Washington and Pyongyang.
A Concession Up Front
Trump believes that Kim has already made a concession and will adhere to a missile and nuclear testing moratorium until a summit takes place. But in accepting the invitation and possibly granting Kim a one-on-one summit, Trump has given North Korea a far greater victory, something no North Korean leader has yet achieved: a seat at the table as an equal, presumably as an equivalent nuclear weapons power. Thus, the administration has made a concession up front, despite the administration’s exhortations to the contrary.
Can Trump walk away with something himself, the breakthrough everyone is hoping for: North Korea voluntarily relinquishing its nuclear weapons program? Almost certainly not. But that does not mean the meeting is doomed for failure — or that the costs of allowing Kim his photo-op should stand in the way of diplomatic progress. This summit could be a highly risky venture that could nonetheless yield substantial upsides, such as a sustained freeze in North Korean testing and development work on ballistic missiles, along with other confidence building and nonproliferation measures. A serious downside, however, remains: it could seal the path to war, emboldening the most hawkish voices in the administration, if Trump walks away with nothing and blames Kim for double-crossing him and South Korea for setting him up.
The Bad News: Voluntary Denuclearization is Extremely Unlikely
The South Korean announcement that denuclearization is on the table calls for measured optimism. The reality, however, is that denuclearization has always been on the table — but only in theory, and only if the United States agrees to essentially impossible demands. North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons for a lollipop. It will likely come at a hefty price to the United States and to the U.S.-South Korea alliance, one that they may not be willing to pay (and should not be willing to pay).
The day after North Korea’s first-ever successful ICBM test last July, state media quoted Kim as saying that his country:
would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations in any case nor flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering the nuclear force chosen by itself unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated. (emphasis added)
Let’s talk through what that statement might actually imply. Few analysts have seen fit to take the conditional offer at face value. But for the North Koreans, this is very much a sincere statement of intent: so long as the United States “definitely terminate[s]” the “hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK,” they would be willing to denuclearize. The “hostile policy” is the chief North Korean grievance about the United States since the conclusion of the Korean War; it refers to a basket of policies, including the U.S. decision to permanently forward-base troops in Northeast Asia and extend its nuclear umbrella to South Korea. The term is also used to describe tactical maneuvers, like U.S. bomber assurance and deterrence flights near the peninsula.
While we don’t know precisely how North Korea defines the “hostile policy”, it helps to conceive of the maximalist case — the ad absurdum request. North Korea might seek the total expulsion of forward-based U.S. forces in East Asia (in South Korea and Japan), the formal abrogation of extended deterrence commitments to East Asian allies, and even request that the United States disarm itself of nuclear weapons. If that last one sounds absurd, consider that this is a regular refrain in North Korean propaganda, and even made an appearance in an editorial in the country’s state newspaper in the aftermath of the inter-Korean talks. Ultimately, ending the “hostile policy” might simply be an unattainable chimera that thrives off perpetual enmity with the United States. If North Korea requests U.S. disarmament and eviction from the Peninsula at a prospective summit, it will be a sign that Pyongyang is not particularly serious about negotiations.
A more realistic interpretation of North Korea’s conditions — one that the regime might adhere to if it is in a mood to negotiate — might include ending large-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea, and some form of security guarantees — assurances from the United States that it will not attack North Korea or the Kim regime. However, when entering negotiations with North Korea, assuming maximalist demands is usually the prudent course. Especially now that Kim has declared his nuclear forces “complete,” North Korea can feel especially emboldened to attempt a door-in-face negotiation tactic, hoping to extract favorable concessions. Kim’s challenge will be to enter talks with an opening offer for Trump that is large, but not so great — i.e., alliance-breaking — that Trump will have no choice but to conclude that North Korea was never serious about a good faith negotiation and walk away.
Optimists believe that some form of a security guarantee could help induce Kim to surrender his nuclear weapons. The fundamental problem, however, is this: Could any security guarantees ever be sufficiently credible to convince Kim to give up his nuclear weapons? Put another way, can Kim ever trust the promise of an American president to not attack him — not just Trump but future presidents — more than he trusts the deterrent power of his own nuclear weapons? Especially after what the United States did to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, the latter after giving up his uranium enrichment program — again, another commonly heard refrain in North Korean propaganda — it is difficult to conceive of any commitments that would persuade Kim to relinquish his ultimate source of insurance: nuclear weapons. This was always going to be a problem given the exceptional trust deficit with North Korea, but is particularly amplified under Trump, whose unilateral threats and flirtation with abrogating commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran haven’t helped shore up perceptions in North Korea.
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.
The lone case of nuclear reversal by an independent nuclear weapons power is South Africa. Here, too, the lessons for North Korea are few and far between. The South African apartheid government fabricated six-and-a-half uranium cores through the 1980s as a deterrent to a “total onslaught” of communist forces in southern Africa. The end of the Cold War saw South Africa’s main conventional threats dissipate. But more important, perhaps, was the impending end of apartheid. The apartheid government likely had little desire to bequeath a nuclear arsenal to the African National Congress. Although cloaked in the language of responsibility, South Africa’s denuclearization was essentially driven by regime change. An organic regime change in North Korea could theoretically lead to relinquishing nuclear weapons, but there are no historical models of anything to the Kim regime voluntarily giving up its nuclear weapons while it is still in power. Kim is not going to show up at the summit and offer Trump the keys to his nuclear kingdom. It is simply not going to happen.
What Next? Potential Good News, with a Grain of Salt
When the inevitable happens, the most pressing fear is that Trump will feel betrayed by both Pyongyang and Seoul and then be tempted by the remaining pathway to denuclearize North Korea: forcibly through war. But, there is an opportunity for significant progress if the Trump administration is interested in positive outcomes short of that and willing to make some concessions. One realistic objective might be a indefinite suspension of missile and nuclear testing in exchange for limits on exercises or some sanctions relief. The good news from the South Korean trip is the North’s apparent offer to temporarily suspend nuclear and missile tests while talks are ongoing, without seemingly conditioning the offer explicitly on freezing military exercises, or even requesting sanctions relief. This is an encouraging sign and should not to be taken lightly; it could represent a substantive signal from Kim about his willingness to begin negotiating.
But even then, there are a number of serious obstacles to productive talks with North Korea. First, the United States has recently maintained that, in order for a freeze on nuclear and missile tests to count, the North Koreans must explicitly state that they are initiating a moratorium. According to statements by U.S. officials, the precondition for exploratory talks with North Korea was a 60-day freeze, which actually did happen between the Sept. 14 flight of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile and the Nov. 29 flight of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental-range ballistic missile. But because North Korea did not confirm a moratorium directly and publicly, Washington did not see the pause in testing as a bona fide gesture that Pyongyang was interested in talks. The outgoing special representative on North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, pointed out that Washington would only take note of a freeze if North Korea specifically said it was ceasing testing. If, however, North Korea were to publicly affirm the South Korean statement’s point about a testing freeze, that might be sufficient for the United States to claim a concession and move ahead with talks, with a realistic objective being to make the temporary moratorium permanent.
But then we run into the second roadblock. The South Korean delegation claimed: “Kim also didn’t specify anything special from South Korea or other countries in return for the North coming to dialogue but expressed an intent to be treated seriously as a counterpart for talks.” This suggests that the North will want to come to the table on the basis of mutual respect as a nuclear weapons power, which would force the United States to “accept” North Korea’s nuclear weapons, something officials have repeatedly stated the United States refuses to do.
“Acceptance” of nuclear states, however, is something of a canard; there is no de jure stamp of approval for new nuclear states outside of the five recognized in the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). And there is de facto recognition of non-NPT nuclear weapons powers already such as India and Pakistan. Regardless of how the administration chooses to frame a summit — if it occurs — Trump choosing to travel and meet Kim will be a form of de facto recognition of what North Korea has already accomplished with its nuclear program. Beyond that, there’s no explicit “gold star” the United States can give North Korea. If Kim demands public recognition, talks may go nowhere, since the United States, will almost certainly refuse to formally accept or recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons power, for fear of incentivizing proliferation.
Third — and most critically from an allied perspective — the United States and South Korea are scheduled to hold the annual Foal Eagle exercise in April. These exercises involve the mass mobilization of U.S. Forces Korea assets in addition to the South Korean military and have already been postponedonce due to the Winter Olympics. If these exercises go forward at a scale comparable to last year, despite Kim saying he “understands the South’s stance,” he could nevertheless decide to conduct drills or strategic missile tests.
Depending on the assets Kim chooses to test, this could derail talks before they even start. North Korea has shown that it plays tit-for-tat with the United States. Last year, as Foal Eagle was getting underway, North Korea tested a salvo of medium-range extended-range Scuds, simulating its capability to saturate a U.S. base in Japan. Moreover, even in North Korea’s totalitarian system regime, military elites may be skeptical of engagement with the United States and would want to see signs that Kim is not neglecting military readiness while Foal Eagle gets underway. (Such a rationale may have been partly behind North Korea’s Feb. 8 military parade, which took place a day before the Winter Olympics began.) The aftermath of Foal Eagle will be critical because while the Trump administration may deem, for instance, short-range missile drills as compliant with a testing freeze, it could also use any activity as an excuse to back out of the talks and blame North Korea for violating the freeze.
Nevertheless, the apparent offer to freeze missile and nuclear tests could provide the Trump administration enough of an opening and incentive to enter talks. The administration can claim that its maximum pressure campaign induced a pause on testing and that North Korea has nominally placed denuclearization “on the table.” It can therefore claim it is not entering negotiations under the threat of blackmail or coercion. And the United States can always walk away if it believes North Korea is not negotiating in good faith, or if Kim violates the moratorium.
A testing freeze alone could open the path to a verifiable moratorium on long-range missile testing. For example, the United States could tolerate a deal under which North Korea continued testing older, liquid-fueled short-range ballistic missiles, but halted testing medium-range-and-greater systems and sea-launched systems. If North Korea complies — for modest sanctions relief — this could be a valuable confidence-building measure that paves the path for more productive talks on both vertical (the expansion of the North Korean force) and horizontal (transfers and sales abroad) nuclear proliferation. North Korea has agreed to, and eventually defected on, such moratoria in the past. While there’s no guarantee this time would be different, the administration has much to gain and little to lose by trying to cinch such an assurance.
Beyond the freeze offer, the other good news is that the inter-Korean bonhomie that began with the Winter Olympics has significantly reduced the temperature on the Korean Peninsula from the second half of 2017, which saw unilateral threats from the president of the United States to “totally destroy” North Korea and bring down “fire and fury” upon Kim for mere threats. While the narrative of a possible “bloody nose” strike has hung over the inter-Korean talks, North Korea’s first-use incentiveshave at least diminished with their entry into the discussions.
Pirouetting to Pyongyang
But it’s not just the United States that risks embarrassment and damage to the alliance. South Korea has made big promises on behalf of Pyongyang — promises that we’ve yet to hear repeated by North Korea. If North Korea reneges on the assurances that South Korea has publicly announced, the Moon government risks embarrassment of its own that could engender resentment in Washington.
The two allies have been on different sides of the denuclearization issue during the first months of 2018: The United States has announced multiple rounds of unilateral sanctions while South Korea has pursued engagement. Moon, of course, was dealt a lousy hand to begin with and has been playing those cards as well as possible. Still, North Korea is in a position to embarrass the South if it pretends the announcements Seoul’s envoys made on its behalf are based in fantasy. Ultimately, Moon should seek to secure a productive inter-Korean statement — with unambiguous North Korean buy-in — at the conclusion of his upcoming summit with Kim, giving Trump something to point to in his own presumptive meeting with Kim. Verbal assurances from one party alone — Seoul — will make for a flimsy foundation, given the stakes.
Summit or no summit, the Korean Peninsula denuclearization riddle is no closer to being cracked, but that doesn’t mean the Trump administration shouldn’t seize what appears to be a promising opening. The administration cannot and should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The holy grail on the Peninsula — complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament — is a pipe dream after the failures of multiple U.S. administrations. The proximate task on the Peninsula is to manage nuclear dangers and avert a war that has a high likelihood of involving nuclear use. The Trump administration should recognize that clearly as it looks to navigate the opening that South Korea, and maybe the North, are providing.
Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) is a senior editor at The Diplomat and an independent researcher. Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) is an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article first appeared with War on the Rocks and is republished here with kind permission.