Should the US be talking to North Korea? Definitely. Is a hasty Trump-Kim summit a good idea? Almost certainly not. Still there are ways to make this process more modest, safer and more constructive. Bizarrely, the summit, rather than being the date by which a detailed deal must be agreed, may be more usefully thought of as a confidence-building gesture and as a way of agreeing the final goals of a nuclear-free zone around Korea.
North Korea has been signalling its willingness to negotiate a security ‘grand bargain’ with the US for years, and has been laying out a reasonably realistic process since mid-2014.
It has been hard to see, what with the insults and nuclear tests and missile launches, but the North Korean regime (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) has consistently been offering peace feelers. What’s happened is that, finally, in a chaotic and precarious way, the US has accepted the DPRK’s offer to talk.
The next stage, for North Korea, is to start talking about how to exchange its ‘denuclearisation’ (an ambiguous term) for recognition, normalisation of relations and a US security guarantee.
How we got here
Everyone knows that the safest path to eventually reaching a peace agreement involves a ‘freeze-for-freeze’ or ‘suspension-for-suspension’, where the DPRK halts nuclear and missile tests, and the US stops provocative military exercises in and around South Korea. As former US diplomat Joel S Wit revealed last year, the double freeze proposal was first made by North Korea secretly in ‘backchannel’ talks in mid-2014. (PN 2610–2611)
Wit wrote in the Atlantic: ‘if Washington had taken the time to discuss the idea with the North Koreans, the U.S. would have learned that they did not mean the complete cancellation of all exercises, only the end of activities intended to show that the U.S. and South Korea could remove [North Korean leader] Kim Jung Un from power and use nuclear weapons against the regime.’
Without announcing it as such, the two sides put a double freeze in place during the Olympic and Paralympic games in South Korea, creating an environment in which peace talks could become possible.
That has always been the point of the double freeze idea, to stop the slide to war and to create a situation in which deeper issues can be worked on.
On 10 March, two days after he accepted the invitation to meet with Kim, US president Donald Trump tweeted: ‘North Korea has not conducted a Missile Test since November 28, 2017 and has promised not to do so through our meetings. I believe they will honor that commitment!’
On the other hand, North Korea signalled that it would ‘understand’ if the US were to carry out its usual military exercises around South Korea during the pre-talks period.
It was announced in mid-March that scheduled US exercises would take place, but they would be halved to last only one month, and that B-1 stealth bombers and aircraft carrier strike groups would not take part. These forces are crucial to the ‘decapitation’/assassination drills that the DPRK particularly objects to.
The exercises will begin on 1 April and are expected to end before South Korean president Moon Jae-in meets Kim in historic peace talks at the end of the month.
The Trump administration is woefully unprepared for a Trump-Kim summit – and divided over its wisdom.
It is quite possible that US hawks will torpedo the summit. On 8 March, the day that Trump accepted the invitation to the summit, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: ‘This meeting won’t take place without concrete actions that match the promises that have been made by North Korea.’
In the following days, the administration put out mixed signals about whether it had further preconditions for the summit to take place (other than the suspension of missile and nuclear tests).
Quite apart from its co-ordination problems, the US is in poor shape to hold a presidential summit in May, just from a practical point of view.
Usually a US presidential summit comes after months, even years, of negotiations, after the deal has been worked out in detail – and is a reward for smaller states. This meeting is almost designed to fail.
Wendy Sherman, who was the lead US negotiator for the 2015 Iran deal, commented: ‘we wrote an entire agreement, over 100 pages, before we began the negotiation, so we had a sense of what we were trying to achieve. It was incredibly detailed and incredibly technical.’
Even if Trump were a details person, the US may not have the personnel to prepare properly.
Trump’s special envoy on North Korean policy, Joseph Yun, resigned just before 8 March. No successor has been named. There is no permanent US ambassador to South Korea, or assistant secretary of state for the region. Trump has just replaced his secretary of state and his national security adviser (replacing hawks with super-hawks) and has cut the state department.
Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Washington Post: ‘The State Department has hemorrhaged Korean linguists and former negotiators.... [whereas the North Koreans] will send people with 30 years of experience. This is a real challenge.’
What to aim for
The biggest danger with the Kim-Trump summit is that Trump promises his public, and convinces himself, that the summit will end with Kim agreeing to comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID). That is simply not going to happen.
Trump himself said on 11 March: ‘I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world.’
If the talks break down, they could ‘take us closer to war’, as Victor Cha has warned. Cha was in line to be US ambassador to South Korea, but was dropped because of his opposition to a ‘bloody nose’ military attack on North Korea.
Depending on how you define ‘denuclearisation’, CVID may be possible further down the track, but the goal now should be more modest.
Suzanne DiMaggio of the New America thinktank, who facilitated the first official meeting between the Trump administration and the North Koreans last year, suggests the most restricted goal for the meeting: ‘If [the summit] helps to establish a process for serious, sustained negotiations, then it’s a positive move.’ She warns: ‘I think we need to go into this with the mindset that this is going to be a long, arduous process.’
“The Trump administration is woefully unprepared for a Trump-Kim summit”
Jenny Town, of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins university in Maryland, has a bigger, but still not unrealistic, agenda: Trump should push for ‘a continued moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, a moratorium on space launch vehicles, stopping fissile material production and allowing inspectors back into the country’. Denuclearisation-lite.
Back in December, former Russian diplomat Dr Georgy Toloraya suggested a more modest trade-off, taking into account ‘what seem to be the highest priorities for each country’.
This would involved ‘capping North Korea’s ICBM [inter-continental ballistic missile] capability – which enables North Korea theoretically to attack the continental United States – while allowing North Korea to keep its “nuclear weapons” – that is, possibly the charges, but not specific delivery systems – as the “sacred cow”.’
Suzanne DiMaggio suggests an even more modest goal as a ‘major priority’ for the US: preventing North Korea from selling its nuclear technology to others.
The success of peace negotiations depends in part on what the DPRK means by ‘hostile policy’.
Last 4 July, when North Korea successfully tested an ICBM, Kim Jong-Un said: ‘[North Korea] 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)
Former CIA and state department North Korea specialist Robert Carlin pointed out that previously the North Koreans used to say explicitly that nuclear weapons were not bargaining chips to be put on the negotiating table. In this speech, though, Kim explicitly raised the prospect of nuclear weapons and ICBMs being on the table.
So a lot turns on what ‘hostile policy’ needs to be ‘terminated’ by the US. Many Western analysts think this means US withdrawal from South Korea and perhaps Japan, and the end of US military alliances in the region.
That’s possible. On the other hand, Georgy Toloraya, who had a lot of dealings with North Korea as a Russian diplomat, discussed just this point with ‘North Korean representatives, both senior level foreign establishment representatives and experts’, at the end of last year.
Toloraya reports: ‘The examples of “hostile policy” cited include exercises aimed at “decapitation,” rehearsing attacks on Pyongyang and efforts to undermine the North’s “socialist system”, including covert activities, psychological warfare and sanctions.’
We’ll have to see what the North Korean agenda is. It doesn’t seem possible to say right now that the talks are doomed because Kim’s demands are excessive – they may turn out to be, but right now the evidence isn’t there.
Toloraya asked North Korean officials and experts about denuclearisation if the US ended its ‘hostile policy’. The North Koreans ‘admitted that they are not, in principle, against a “nuclear-free zone” in and around Korea.... upon achieving nuclear parity with other parties, the balanced reduction and eventual denuclearization of the whole area is not impossible.’
Toloraya commented: ‘the declaration of a loosely-defined nuclear-free zone on the Korean peninsula or in Northeast Asia as the final goal of a diplomatic process could create space for the eventual denuclearization of North Korea, and such a formula could be on an agenda during “talks about talks” with Pyongyang.’
Let’s hope this process, whether or not it includes a Trump-Kim summit in May, helps to create just such a space.