Although it is unclear how much the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will accomplish, there are three things that remain certain. First, the United States is already secure due to deterrence. That peace will be kept unless the United States uses unprovoked military force against North Korea or Kim attacks because he thinks war is imminent. Second, diplomacy helps to prevent crises and could lead to an enduring peace which would be in both countries interests. Third, peace and a new relationship with Pyongyang is the only possible way to achieve some level of denuclearization.
The summit will be held in Vietnam on February 27–28, and is a chance to further build a new foundation for U.S.-North Korean relations. Trump can enter that meeting knowing that behind him is the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal and that deterrence can and will hold the peace.
The point of nuclear weapons is that their mere existence and the threat they pose cause countries to moderate their actions out of fear. For this reason, outside of miscalculation, misperception, or an accident, Washington is safe from North Korean nuclear weapons — and it’s why the United States should not use unprovoked military force against Pyongyang.
Diplomacy is the key: It is the way that miscalculation, misperception, and accidents are avoided or resolved with without escalation.
America’s negotiator, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, knows this. On January 31, he gave a speech outlining for the first time in detail Washington’s negotiations with Pyongyang. He stated that peace had to be the priority that would drive all other concerns, including denuclearization:
“We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime. We need to advance our diplomacy alongside our plans for denuclearization in a manner that sends that message clearly to North Korea as well. We are ready for a different future.”
Imagine how it was for both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile crisis, with each unsure of the other’s intentions. The importance of having not just embassies, but also direct communication became paramount, and Washington and Moscow signed an agreement for such a communications link shortly after.
Today, a state of war technically exists between the United States and North Korea, but neither country hosts an embassy or communicates directly or very regularly. Add a sudden crisis to these conditions and you can see not only how war could accidentally erupt, but also why Kim will likely never denuclearize. Why would he give up his security of last resort while facing the most powerful country on the planet that is his traditional enemy and with whom he has no regular, normal contact?
Diplomacy should continue because a return to threats and escalation is a dead end that increases the risks of accidental nuclear war. In fact, that almost happened during the height of the exchange of threats and military posturing by Trump and Kim in late 2017. North Korean leaders actually thought the United States might be planning a preventive war, like that launched against Iraq by George W. Bush. Trump had considered tweeting about evacuating U.S. civilians from South Korea, a signal that would have been interpreted in Pyongyang as a prelude to an attack.
Peace and regular communication allow each country to better understand each other’s red lines, intentions, and interests. These are the only blocks upon which the foundation for any possible denuclearization can be built.
Also, perception and progress matters to U.S. voters and policymakers, and the pressure is on for Pyongyang and Washington to negotiate real tradeoffs. But attempting to get full denuclearization upfront misses the point. It is impossible for Kim given the circumstances explained above.
There will not be enough action by Pyongyang on denuclearization that will satisfy domestic critics, and that is okay. With deterrence already assured, the goal should be peace, not immediate denuclearization. Moreover, if Biegun follows through with what he said in his speech, and if Trump is serious about avoiding future armed conflict with North Korea, then peace should be the United States’ goal. That is a prize worthy of pursuing and is one that is actually achievable.
Any nuclear weapons freeze or rollback, to say nothing of full denuclearization, will take years or decades to negotiate and implement.
One near-term possibility, as has been reported, is that North Korea could give up its Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch pad. Biegun also disclosed in his speech that Kim agreed to “the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities.” This would likely be done in exchange for a peace declaration and an easing of inter-Korean sanctions so that some inter-Korean infrastructure projects could begin. These would be helpful for the confidence-building process, would test North Korean intent, and would be easier for Washington to reverse than U.N. sanctions.
Pyongyang could eliminate, cap, or hand over to China some or all of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. In exchange, the normalization of diplomatic relations and further sanctions relief would probably be Washington’s offer.
If there is a deal to be had, the yardstick should measure steps toward peace, not denuclearization. Peace is the real, more important goal. And denuclearization can only come later.
Ultimately, Kim will want to keep at least some of his weapons to deter outside powers from threatening his regime. The United States will deter Kim indefinitely, and it can do so while also seeking to make progress on other issues, including limited denuclearization. We will see if the second summit can deliver something more concrete. If not, then deterrence will keep the United States and our allies safe, as it has for more than a decade, and hold the peace.
John Dale Grover is an assistant managing editor for The National Interest. He is also a fellow with Defense Priorities and a writer with Young Voices. His articles have appeared in Real Clear World, The Hill, Defense One, and Fox News. Follow him on Twitter @JohnDaleGrover.