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Why Trump Should Take It Slow With Kim Jong Un
Why Trump Should Take It Slow With Kim Jong Un
Korean Presidents’ Meeting is a Memorable Step Forward
Korean Presidents’ Meeting is a Memorable Step Forward
Op-Ed / United States

Why Trump Should Take It Slow With Kim Jong Un

Originally published in Politico Magazine

Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.

After three months of palace intrigue, speculation and on-again-off-again pronouncements, the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is finally upon us. The core question is whether this historic meeting between two idiosyncratic leaders who were just months ago exchanging taunts like “Little Rocket Man” and “dotard,” and one-upping each other’s threats of nuclear annihilation, can help find a path toward denuclearization and stability for the Korean Peninsula.

We both worked in the Obama White House but this is not a partisan matter and we are rooting wholeheartedly for this administration’s success. Nobody will benefit if the leaders walk away from the summit disappointed and frustrated, and there’s certainly some risk of that. If the parties try to accomplish too much in Singapore, or if they fail to identify a realistic game plan for the period that follows, then they could return to the escalating standoff that characterized their relations throughout 2017. But toxic frustration is not the only alternative. As a senior U.S. diplomat recently told us, if the complete failure to reach agreement is on one end of the spectrum of possibilities, and a “bad deal” for the United States is on the other, there is plenty of space for a positive result in the middle.

We agree. In a report authored for International Crisis Group, we try to steer the parties toward a so-called “deep freeze” that each party might be able to claim as its own version of that middle ground.

First, during the summit, the two leaders should agree on a short declaration of principles that sets forth each party’s strategic priorities, putting off talk for now of a full-blown treaty — something impossible to do responsibly in the given time. In Washington’s case, the priority would no doubt be a commitment to denuclearization. Pyongyang, which above all else wants a redefined political and security relationship with Washington, might ask the United States to affirm that it harbors no “hostile intent” toward North Korea. The parties could commit to sustain the testing pause already in place and other confidence-building measures — perhaps a ratcheting back of some aspects of joint U.S-South Korean military exercises. And the leaders could commit to meet again.

It took Pyongyang 70 years to acquire a nuclear capability that it regards as fundamental to its security, and there are limits to how far and how fast it will go down a new path.

But while this would set a helpful frame for future talks, Washington and Pyongyang have generated similar documents in the past, and North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced anyway. So beyond the declaration, the parties need to come up with a plan for what needs to happen after the summit so that the odds for success are better this time around. Here again, the plan needs to be informed by a healthy dose of realism. It took Pyongyang 70 years to acquire a nuclear capability that it regards as fundamental to its security, and there are limits to how far and how fast it will go down a new path. The strategic implications are too great, the bilateral trust deficit is too deep, and the North Korean nuclear program is too big and advanced to follow the path that Libya took in 2003 and 2004, when it dismantled its nuclear infrastructure in short order and shipped much of it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That is why we believe it may be useful to aim for a way station that would move the parties in the direction of denuclearization without getting them all the way there in one fell swoop.

Our road map to a “deep freeze” would bring the parties to a verifiable cap on the production of nuclear weapons, plutonium and enriched uranium, and long-range missiles—i.e., missiles capable of striking the U.S. and whatever other missiles the parties agree should be part of the arrangement. We don’t set a time frame but this could be done even within the current presidential term if the parties set their minds to it. The plan has four steps:

  • The first step, which could be done very quickly, would be to flesh out and formally commit to the elements of the current pause that Pyongyang has carried out unilaterally. For example, while North Korea has ceased all missile and nuclear testing, it is not clear whether it intends to refrain from all short- and medium-range missile launches, or from space launcher development. These matters should be clarified.
  • The second step, which will take months to negotiate and implement, would involve measures to broaden the scope of the pause and make it more resilient. North Korea would sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thereby committing itself not to test nuclear weapons. And it would permit outside observers or remote monitoring equipment to be introduced at key sites in North Korea, both to begin answering questions about its baseline capabilities and to create some practical obstacles to the resumption of paused activities. (It’s harder to do the wrong thing if observers are on site.)
  • The third step, the most challenging of the plan, would involve expanding the monitoring regime to encompass the entirety of North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile production capabilities, including the science and production base that support these capabilities. By the end of the third step, observers or monitors would be permitted wherever they need to be in order to form a comprehensive baseline of the North Korean nuclear and missile-related activities to be frozen. This step is more difficult than either of those preceding it because it would require North Korea to disclose the location of secret activities to the U.S., which theoretically could use that information for military purposes should relations revert to earlier form. North Korea will almost certainly insist on security guarantees before it permits this step.
  • The fourth step would be the establishment of a full production cap and freeze for nuclear weapons, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, long-range missiles and other programs and technology related to the capability to produce them. It might also include limits on the production and stockpiling of components required for nuclear and missile production, such as uranium mining, centrifuge production, and the manufacture of missile engines.
If Washington fails to balance its ambitions with a healthy dose of realism, it could come up empty handed.

In considering this plan, Washington would need to accept that North Korea is not going to move down this path unless it sees the United States taking corresponding measures. For this reason, while Washington has resisted an action-for-action framework for its engagement with Pyongyang, it is the only viable approach. As for what some of those measures might entail, on the political front, North Korea would like to see the United States enter into a peace agreement that ends the Korean War and afford it diplomatic recognition. On the security front, it might want to see the ratcheting back of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, a written renunciation of any first strike by one party against the other, and a commitment not to deploy nuclear-capable bombers and submarines in or around the Korean Peninsula. On the economic front, sanctions relief (especially in key economic sectors like seafood and textiles) will be important. While some measures may be relatively straightforward for the United States to take early on in the process, it may hold others for later in the game.

Our plan might be seen as too little by some who want immediate results. We too want rapid results, but we also caution against magical thinking. North Korea won’t be threatened into giving up its nuclear weapons, and if Washington fails to balance its ambitions with a healthy dose of realism, it could come up empty handed — and risk a relapse into the crisis mode that characterized 2017. That scary period seems like a long way away from this week’s circus atmosphere in Singapore, but the parties could be back there very quickly if talks fail. We hope prudence and patience guide them instead, and they see that moving down a calibrated path in the right direction is better than racing back to a stand-off on the edge of a very dangerous cliff.


Chief of Policy
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Jon B. Wolfsthal
Non-resident Scholar at Carnegie
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk together at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, on 27 April 27 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters
Commentary / Asia

Korean Presidents’ Meeting is a Memorable Step Forward

Symbolism and substance combined to make the 27 April meeting between the North and South Korean presidents a momentous occasion. Much needs to be done to overcome scepticism from past failures, but the concrete timeline the two countries laid out in the Panmunjom Declaration could lead to transformative steps.

What's happening in Korea?

The leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in met in the Korean War truce village of Panmunjom today. It was the third inter-Korean summit, and the first such meeting in a decade.

The meeting was rich with symbolism. Every element, from the size of the conference table to the dinner menu, suggested deeper meaning. The pine tree Kim and Moon planted near the inter-Korean border was nourished with soil from the highest mountains in North and South Korea, Paektu and Halla, and water from the Han and Taedong rivers that run through the two Korean capital cities.

But there was also substance. Kim and Moon spent 40 minutes in private discussion in the afternoon, the results of which will take time to emerge. Senior officials accompanying the leaders took the opportunity to discuss their individual remits. And finally, the two sides issued the Panmunjom Declaration for Korean Peninsula Peace, Prosperity and Unification (hereafter the Panmunjom Declaration) at 18:00.

What’s new in the Panmunjom Declaration?

The declaration contains a lot of positive language and concrete steps that, pending successful negotiation of the details and implementation, could evolve into transformative shifts in inter-Korean relations. The most significant of these steps are the reaffirmation plans for regular communication through a dedicated phone line linking the two leaders, and the launching of three- and four-party talks with the U.S., and in the latter case, China, to bring about an end to the Korean War and institute a “peace system” on the Korean peninsula.

The stage is thus set for multilateral dialogue as spring turns to summer. Today’s symbolically important inter-Korean meeting makes the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un all the more likely. And the news that Moon Jae-in is to visit Pyongyang in the autumn implies a very welcome intention to continue moving in a positive direction.

While both states talk of denuclearisation, the word means different things to each government.

U.S.-North Korean talks are likely to be dominated by discussion of the future of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. While both states talk of denuclearisation, the word means different things to each government. The U.S. seeks unilateral denuclearisation from North Korea, while North Korea itself sees its denuclearisation as contingent, at a minimum, on the removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella from South Korea. The Panmunjom Declaration ends with positive language on denuclearisation, but contains no substance. It does not mention missiles at all. There is still much to be done.

Both Moon and Kim acknowledged this morning that some of their promises had been heard before, in the declarations of the 2000 and 2007 inter-Korean summits. The failure to make good on those pledges has contributed much to the pervasive mistrust, and the cynicism, which many in South Korea feel toward the North. Though North Korea is responsible for many acts of unconscionable aggression over the years, the failed declarations are not entirely Pyongyang’s fault. The 2007 statement, for example, included language on actively pursuing inter-Korean dialogue, terminating military hostilities, connecting the two Koreas by road and rail, and actively expanding joint economic projects, to say nothing of implementing Six-Party Talks agreements on denuclearisation. Very little came of it. The two sides must establish robust political structures for the implementation of today’s agreements, or the same could all too easily happen again.

Why is it happening now and why does it matter?

After two years of particularly high tension, in the second half of 2017 there was concern, most prominently in the United States, but also in Japan, South Korea and China, that the Korean peninsula was sliding toward conflict. That 2018 saw a turn toward dialogue and four months of rapidly warming relations, first between the two Koreas but then between North Korea and the United States and then China, too, is a welcome change.

The shift to dialogue was made possible in the first instance by North Korea’s decision to engage with South Korea at the beginning of 2018, and from there, thanks in no small part to Moon Jae-in's deft diplomacy, to participate in the Winter Olympics in the South during February, an event for which the Kim regime dispatched a large delegation including a cheering squad. The two Koreas also exchanged musical delegations. North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra performed in the South during the games, and a variety of South Korean artists, including a famous K-pop band, performed in Pyongyang in April. The cultural diplomacy was interspersed with a string of high-level meetings, which set the stage for the summit, although the political theatre of it was overshadowed somewhat by Kim’s unofficial visit to Beijing at the end of March.

If Pyongyang is to gain any significant economic assistance, it therefore needs to take substantive steps on denuclearisation and relations with the U.S.

What needs to happen next?

Today’s inter-Korean summit was important not just for the Korean peninsula, but also as a precursor to the meeting between Kim and Trump.

North Korea’s relations with South Korea, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, are symbiotic, linked closely by the straitjacket of the international sanctions regime. The U.S. harnessed growing international concern to steer the UN Security Council to impose unusually stringent sanctions on North Korea in September and December 2017. These penalties have been implemented with a remarkable diligence by China, and have served to dramatically reduce or even cut off some of North Korea’s key revenue streams, such as from export of natural resources and labour, as well as light manufacturing in the textiles sector. Though the South Korean government may be inclined to find ways to give North Korea relief from this state of affairs, the Moon administration is not going to sacrifice South Korea’s international reputation by engaging North Korea in defiance of that sanctions regime. If Pyongyang is to gain any significant economic assistance, it therefore needs to take substantive steps on denuclearisation and relations with the U.S., which could lead to sanctions relief. For Kim Jong-un, the first step toward a successful meeting with Trump and the potential for an exit from its economic cul-de-sac was a positive meeting with Moon Jae-in that gave concrete signals of North Korea’s intention to participate in a new process. He accomplished this today.

With Kim declaring an official end to nuclear testing last week, and the U.S. and South Korean militaries conducting joint exercises this spring on a scale that the North Korean leader was able to accept, the ingredients are in place for progress on military matters at the Kim-Trump meeting. But the risk of U.S.-North Korean failure is ever present. The Easter visit to Pyongyang by Mike Pompeo, now confirmed as secretary of state, made it clear that the Trump administration is working energetically to make the meeting happen. But one reason the summit plans could derail is the mismatch between North Korean and U.S. expectations about the results, notably the pace and scope of denuclearisation and the pace and scope of sanctions relief. Moreover, relations between China and the U.S. are febrile, not at all conducive to the necessary coordination between Washington and Beijing. Any number of elements could bring today’s inter-Korean momentum to a shuddering halt.