12 March 2018

Talking to North Korea is a risk worth taking

By Kim Jinwoo

History is sometimes made in sudden, unexpected bursts. Upon his return to Seoul from his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s national security advisor, Chung Eui-Yong, announced on March 6, that South Korea’s President Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un would hold a summit by the end of April. Just 48 hours later at the White House, Chung stunned the world with the announcement that President Trump had agreed to accept Kim Jong Un’s invitation to meet by the end of May.

And history sometimes conjugates. On June 15, 2016, 16 years to the day after the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration failed to herald a new era of inter-Korean cooperation, then Presidential candidate Donald Trump made portentous off-the-cuff remarks at a political rally in Atlanta, Georgia. It is worth quoting him at length:

One of the papers called – ‘would you speak to the leader of North Korea?’ – I said, absolutely, why not, why not? … Who the hell cares, I’ll speak to anybody. Who knows? There’s a 10 per cent or a 20 per cent chance that I can talk him out of those damn nukes because who the hell wants him to have nukes? And there is a chance. I’m only going to make a good deal for us. But there is a chance.

What the hell is wrong with speaking? And you know what, it’s called opening a dialogue, it’s opening a dialogue.” Foreshadowing the event of March 2018, Trump promised, “I wouldn’t go there [North Korea], that I can tell you. If he came here, I’ll accept him. But I wouldn’t give him a state dinner…. We shouldn’t have dinner at all. We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table….

Thus, the vernacular tag of a “hamburger” summit stuck. South Korea’s Moon administration is euphoric. Japan is stunned by the turn of events. China and Russia are ostensibly supportive of direct talks given that it is exactly what they have called for since the beginning of this crisis. In a twist of irony, it is the United States that seems uncertain and internally conflicted. US experts were wrong-footed by Trump’s decision. They rationalise their shock by reflexively adhering to the mantra that the devil is in the details.

Leaving to one side the logistics of the two upcoming summits, how serious issues will be addressed and what formidable obstacles will be faced requires deeper scrutiny. What good will come from these summits and what are the risks involved?

By agreeing to the meeting, President Trump has upended decades of standard operating procedures of summit diplomacy and arms control negotiations. There are risks and benefits associated with this move.

In March 2016, President Obama met Cuba’s President Raul Castro. Except for vocal but minor hardliners on Cuba, many in the international community hailed the meeting as a breakout development. But after the euphoria faded, there was little to no progress.

The exact same risk lingers for the April Moon-Kim summit. The importance of the April summit is for South and North Korea to avoid making any deals or announcements that may undermine the Trump-Kim summit.

The United States and its allies should not get ensnared in the language of momentum, a tactic that has been used by previous negotiators to justify talks under any conditions. Experienced negotiators like Trump know that interrupting momentum can sometimes garner more leverage in future negotiations.

Some have cited the precedent of President Nixon meeting with China’s Mao Zedong. But this analogy falls flat. Nixon’s overture to China was a strategic gamble to divide and split the USSR-China alliance, not to denuclearize China. To be sure, North Korea wants to be treated as a co-equal, but they are far from that status, and nuclear parity remains a fantasy.

But sometimes fantasy influences behaviour. North Korea holds a different definition of denuclearisation. For Pyongyang, denuclearisation is the demilitarisation of the Korean peninsula. That means the absence of US military forces.

Because North Korea views the upcoming meeting with Washington as an arms control meeting, Pyongyang will do all it can to retain what they have developed already. For them, denuclearization means that they will not develop any more than what they currently have. That may be a North Korean fantasy. But the expectations of North Korea dismantlement by American and allied decision makers are equally delusional. Though the goals of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) are laudable and desirable, the reality that the US and its allies confront is grim.

Only four countries that possessed, controlled, and maintained nuclear weapons has surrendered them – Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and South Africa. The first three chose to eliminate their weapons in exchange for security assurances from Russia. But it was only South Africa that had developed and controlled its own nuclear weapons, and then made the subsequent decision to abandon them. The nuclear ambitions of South Korea and Taiwan were thwarted in its inchoate stage by determined and resourceful American diplomatic efforts.

On December 19, 2003, Libya announced that it would eliminate its weapons of mass destruction program. Though it had a nuclear program, Libya did not have a nuclear weapon mated to an ICBM at that juncture.

North Korea is in a category of its own. Even South Africa’s nuclear weapons program had not reached North Korea’s level of technical mastery. Though experts differ in their assessment, North Korea’s sixth and last nuclear test indicates that it has a thermonuclear weapon. And its ICBM tests demonstrate that North Korea only has the reentry problem left to perfect in their ballistic missile program. It is a matter of time before they succeed in mastering this final detail.

Because of the advanced level of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, interim, half-measures by North Korea will be futile and counterproductive. If a big deal is in the making, then the US and its allies should “go big.” Among the talented inspectors of the US nuclear weapons laboratories, there is a growing concern that verification of an agreement will go the way of past attempted North Korea “agreements” and the Iran “agreement”, without a strong and preeminent verification process integral to the negotiations. The contention over verification led to the collapse of the Six-Party Talks in 2009 and it may lead to the deflation or collapse of the upcoming summits.

But even with the imperative of including sampling in any verifiable agreement, we need to acknowledge that verification, like sanctions, is a tool of policy, not the policy. The larger policy framework requires statesmen doing what they should do best — thinking at a strategic level.

The model should be South Africa. The guideline should be Britain’s deal with China for a 99-year lease on Hong Kong. South African senior leaders made the strategic decision that the continued possession of nuclear weapons would not be in its larger national interest. Trump’s major homework is to convince Kim of that logic. North Korean military hardliners may oppose any diminution of its nuclear arsenal. But Kim Jong Un can override that opposition.

If, however, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to ensure regime survival, then the goal of denuclearisation isn’t feasible. But if North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is guided by the desire to become a respectable regional power seeking to join the international community in some manner, then an incremental arrangement of dismantlement may be attainable.

As with the 99-year Hong Kong lease, stretching out the timeline over a generation creates ample political “space” for the time being which allows both the US and North Korea to claim that they have emerged victorious out of negotiations. The US can claim that it has received a firm commitment by North Korea to denuclearise (even if it takes 99 years). North Korea can claim that its nuclear weapons program provided the leverage to sit down with the most powerful nation in the world (the North Korean people won’t need to be told about giving up nuclear weapons).

Under this plan, a number of weapons can be dismantled every few years. This would give both sides what they need even if they cannot get what they want. Time may not heal all wounds, but it can mollify contemporary grievances.

In 1982, Paul Nitze had his “walk in the woods” with the Soviet Ambassador, Yuliy Kvitinsky, during which they were able to outline possible concessions which President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev could discuss at a later summit.

Who will emerge as the contemporary equivalents of Nitze and Kvitinsky? General Mattis and Lee Yong-Ho?

The risk involved in a summit that has such a short planning period is that critical details will be cast aside in favour of a larger symbolic victory. If either or both of the summits lead to a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice, the details of such a peace treaty remain that much more important.

Any consideration of a peace treaty will be forced to tackle the issue of the drawing down of US military forces, for symbolic as well as substantive reasons. Candidate Trump consistently harped on the disproportionate defence outlays that the US expends on South Korea. Talks of a possible normalisation between Washington and Pyongyang would exacerbate those fissures. Manpower and money remain the difficult meat of statecraft.

There are those who bemoan talking for the sake of talking. They rightfully point out that North Korea has reneged on every promise and commitment over the past two decades of nuclear talks. They argue that a Trump-Kim summit would give North Korea what they have sought since its existence, a conferring of legitimacy by the United States of America.

But to Trump’s credit, his pronounced reversal of years of ineffectual diplomacy and perfunctory military manoeuvres has led to the greatest chance for talks – with military assets ensconced around Korea to maximise pressure to negotiate. All nations boast that they don’t negotiate under threats. But the opposite is true.

To be sure, the summit may not happen. But suppose it does. If Trump can avoid the pitfalls of personal summits (ingratiation followed by self-flagellation) then he may go down as a consequential statesmen. If all goes well, the amateur Trump and the amateur Kim may end the Korean War once and for all, sign a peace treaty, and set the road to normalisation. Moreover, even if Trump and Kim fail to agree, just as Reagan and Gorbachev did at Reykjavik, the collapse may lead to unexpected results such as a major arms control agreement.

But there are a few things Trump should do to maximise the chances of success.

Don’t underestimate the 34-year-old leader. You don’t rise to the top of a ruthless regime like North Korea by being a soft touch.

Exploit your age. Though there are exceptions, Koreans are taught to respect authority. You don’t have to treat him like your son, but you do need to comport yourself like an authoritative father.

Lay down a few, key serious markers. An inspecting team needs to conduct verification to assess past discrepancies in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and stockpile of sensitive nuclear materials. Such assessments will provide a more accurate rendering of the actual state of its nuclear weapons program. Such information would be critical to formulating and assessing a policy to ultimately dismantle NK’s nuclear program.

Ask him questions. How does Kim Jong Un want the US to guarantee its security? Will North Korea open up its economy and society to seek true modernisation?

Trump and Kim may share a hamburger in May. But meaningful progress on denuclearisation will take a lot more than one meeting. But Trump’s job is to make sure the first meeting is at least a step in the right direction.

Kim Jinwoo is Professor at the Graduate School of Political Studies at Kyonggi University in Seoul.