By Fred Benson
Taken in its best possible light, the upcoming summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un could result in an extraordinary agreement in which North Korea commits to giving up its nuclear arsenal. In return, the United States would agree to sign a peace treaty, provide security guarantees, normalize relations between the two countries and end the sanctions which currently cripple North Korea’s economy. Both Koreas, China, Japan and the United States would be satisfied with the result and all backs slapped in a grand photo op.
What is wrong with this picture? Plenty.
First, we have been here before. Meetings between North and South Korean officials were held in 1971, 1972, 1984 and 1985 with no lasting results. Several meetings in the 1990s yielded promising but unfulfilled steps, including a “Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in 1992. Subsequent talks involving the U.S., Japan, Russia and China failed to dampen North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons development. In 2012, North Korea agreed not to test missiles and then weeks later did so, falsely describing it as a “satellite launch.” The pattern of these talks has been consistent: lessening tension, openness to change, commitment to addressing security issues, lengthy discussions and heated debates, followed by failure to come to agreement on the finer details of the proposed agreement. The process bogs down, and nothing happens.
Second, signing a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, as agreed to by South Korean President Moon and North Korea’s Kim last Friday, to ease the way to an agreement on denuclearization is not as easy as it sounds. Such a treaty most likely would require that the United States formally recognize North Korea and remove at least some of the 25,000 U.S. troops deployed in South Korea. Trump’s insistence that the U.S. will agree to nothing until the nukes are gone — “maximum continuous pressure” — means that this peace treaty may be the last document signed, not the first.
Third, Japan is deeply concerned that Kim has not mentioned eliminating the short- and midrange missiles capable of hitting their country and remains extremely skeptical of Kim’s motives.
Fourth, China, feeling a bit left out at present, would be happy to see all U.S. forces pulled out of South Korea but is wary of the two Korea’s possible interest in reunification. China likes having a strongly communist buffer on its southern border. China could make things difficult at some point.
Fifth is the Pompeo-Bolton factor. With hawks now in place as the principal foreign affairs and national security advisers, they no doubt will be ready to encourage Trump to pull out at the first sign that we are not getting everything we want in the talks. Prior to being appointed national security adviser, Bolton said, “It could be a long and unproductive meeting, or it could be a short and unproductive meeting,” concluding that it would be better off if it failed quickly so that Kim can’t use the delay to further enhance his nuclear capability.
Sixth, an extremely important determinant is the sincerity of the North Korean proposals. What Kim really wants is to cement his country’s status as a nuclear power and end the economic strangulation resulting from the current sanctions. Kim’s commitment to discussing denuclearization was presented in a way that provides strong evidence of newfound diplomatic ingenuity. By suspending all nuclear and rocket tests, closing the major test site next month and suggesting leniency on his previous demand for all U.S. troops to leave South Korea, Kim ensured that Trump had no choice but to agree to meet. At present, Kim is running the show.
Last, and here comes the rub, to achieve his stated goal, Trump will have to gain agreement for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea — a result that many analysts believe is highly unlikely. It is to Kim’s benefit to stretch these talks out as long as possible, hoping that a freeze on development of nuclear weapons will become acceptable eventually. This is the element of a possible agreement that provides Kim with a win-win opportunity. Either he can hold out for the ability to retain his current nuclear weapons stockpile or gain time to further develop his ability to match miniaturized nuclear warheads with his delivery systems.
In spite of the many obstacles to success, Americans should hope that these talks are successful in ending a lingering, dangerous situation. It all boils down to how Trump and Kim manage the destruction of the North’s nuclear capability while easing the existing economic sanctions. Obviously, a phased approach, with careful on-site monitoring of the North’s nuclear inventory, is the way through the thicket. Both leaders must understand that absent patient diplomacy, this important effort will end up in the same dust pile as all previous attempts.
If this effort is successful, all Americans — supporters and critics alike — will owe this president grateful appreciation.
Fred Benson lives in Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. He is a retired Army colonel who served as commander of the U.S. infantry battalion deployed in the Korean Demilitarized Zone.