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Deep Freeze and Beyond: Making the Trump-Kim Summit a Success
The greatest risk to the 12 June summit between the U.S. and North Korea is mismatched expectations. To avoid a return to escalatory rhetoric, both parties should keep hopes modest and adopt an action-for-action approach as part of a four-step plan for denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.
What’s new? The on-again, off-again summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is upon us. The parties are in the throes of preparation for the historic 12 June meeting in Singapore. North Korea’s nuclear weapons will top the agenda.
Why does it matter? Only months ago rising tensions between Washington and Pyongyang risked leading to actual conflagration on the Korean peninsula. The summit is a dramatic change for the better. But, given mismatched expectations and lack of preparation time, diplomacy could fail, pushing the parties back toward conflict.
What should be done? The U.S. and North Korea should agree on the contours of an “action-for-action” approach: a four-step plan that could put North Korean nuclear weapons and missile testing in the deep freeze – and establish a monitoring and verification system essential to denuclearisation – in return for political, security and economic benefits.
As the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) eye an unprecedented leader-level summit on 12 June in Singapore, the rest of the world watches with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. But notwithstanding the head-spinning on-again, off-again developments relating to the summit in recent weeks, Washington, Pyongyang and the entire region are in a far better place than six months ago. It was only in November 2017 that North Korea was wrapping up a breathtaking twelve-month missile and nuclear testing spree, and prominent U.S. voices were entertaining the possibility of so-called preventive war, regardless of the unthinkable human and economic costs. Although some complain that the shift from brinkmanship to diplomacy gives them whiplash, whiplash is preferable to war. The question now is whether this moment of possibility can be nurtured into durable progress toward eventual denuclearisation, peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
There is understandable doubt. Pyongyang and Washington both had reason to step back from the brink reached in 2017, but there is potentially a perilous mismatch in their expectations for how negotiations will proceed. The Trump administration has until recently argued forcefully for a “big bang” deal, in which North Korea quickly carries out the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of its nuclear capability, after which Washington would provide economic and security rewards for Pyongyang. In that spirit, Washington would not want to ease up on the pressure and sanctions it believes have helped bring North Korea to the table until it sees major steps from Pyongyang, although there are signs that China may have already begun relaxing its enforcement of the sanctions, adding to the already brewing friction between the U.S. and China.
For its part, North Korea clearly is unprepared to quickly trade away the ultimate guarantor of its security and wants instead an “action-for-action” approach whereby both sides would take steps in a phased process, along the lines of the framework agreed upon in the 2005 Six-Party Talks. Others also will have a say. Beijing is concerned about Pyongyang getting too close to the U.S. But having reasserted its influence, it supports Pyongyang’s approach as the one that would cause the least disruption to the prevailing strategic balance. Urgently seeking to diminish the risk of war and explore a rapprochement, Seoul has taken an increasingly assertive role in drawing together Pyongyang and Washington. Tokyo frets about the possibility of a deal that fails to address its strategic interests, including its vulnerability to North Korean ballistic missiles with shorter ranges than the ICBMs that preoccupy the United States, as well as chemical and biological weapons.
The way to address this mismatch and maximise chances of regional buy-in would be for the U.S. to accept the necessity of an “action-for-action” approach and turn its attention to negotiating with Pyongyang the contours thereof. Summit sceptics like U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton have suggested that if North Korea were truly serious about denuclearisation it would agree to the “Libya model”. In the present situation, though, the negative strategic implications for the DPRK are too great, the bilateral trust deficit too deep, and the North Korean nuclear program too big and advanced to mimic the short-order transfer of equipment and other materials that characterised Libya’s denuclearisation in 2003 and 2004. Even if such a thing were physically possible, the verification and access the U.S. would require for assurance that everything of strategic value had been addressed would take years to achieve. Of course, the essence of “action-for-action” is that there must be concessions on both sides, and the U.S. and other stakeholders will have to be prepared to meet North Korea’s moves with corresponding security, political and economic measures.
In his 1 June meeting with Kim Jong-un’s representative Kim Yong-chol, President Trump appeared to be turning the corner toward accepting such phased denuclearisation. That’s a welcome development, although the administration’s track record calls the firmness of this new position somewhat into question.
Managing expectations for the summit itself is also critical. It would be magical thinking to expect that a summit announced on the spur of the moment in March, with only three months of working-level preparation, could produce a well-considered and viable arms control agreement in June. It would be far more realistic for the parties to aim for a statement of principles that in general language addresses each party’s key strategic requirements, commits them to meeting again and formally locks in place the current moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. There are ample precedents to draw from in crafting such a document. Again, Trump’s recent statements suggesting several meetings would be needed reflect a salutary – albeit again possibly fleeting – realism.
The parties need to fix their sights on the destination they will be seeking to reach after the summit.
Finally, the parties need to fix their sights on the destination they will be seeking to reach after the summit. While the ultimate destination should remain the total and monitored denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the political and practical impediments to negotiating a roadmap leading all the way there could be prohibitive. An alternative would be to stake out an ambitious midway point to start with, building upon precedents that have achieved at least some success in the past. As recently as 2009, international inspectors had some access to North Korea’s nuclear sites. One possibility would be to bring them back, expand their remit and, in stages, aim for a deep freeze that caps Pyongyang’s production of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and key related materials in a verifiable way.
There are many ways to frame such a deep freeze, many other plausible and constructive way stations of comparable ambition, and many reasons to believe that a project of this scope – one that would entail risks and uncomfortable concessions from both sides – will not succeed. But jaded students of history should not dismiss the opportunities of the present diplomatic moment. For all that this moment has been shaped by mistrust, sabre-rattling and larger-than-life personalities, its salient feature may be the presence of leaders in Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul who, for whatever mix of personal, political and policy reasons, show an inclination to address a crisis that threatens international peace and security like few others. There is no shortage of concern about the U.S. and North Korean leaders, and Crisis Group has commented on both at some length. But on this issue at least, one can hope, their unusual and troubling traits might be well suited to the challenge.