After years of failed attempts by the United States and others, is U.S. President Donald Trump the man who can strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons and bring lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula?
Trump remains ever confident that he is the right man for the job, but experts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not about to part with his “treasured nuclear sword” — at least not any time soon.
“Kim Jong Un would no doubt take a huge hit inside the regime if he gave up the nuclear program,” said Ken Gause, a North Korean expert and director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Strategic Studies, a division of the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington.
“For that reason, I don’t think he would do it immediately,” Gause said. “Denuclearization would be a long process that would take years and be tied to significant guarantees, such as a peace treaty. How fast this process goes would depend on what the U.S. and South Korea would be willing to put on the table and how comfortable North Korea feels on its security.”
Trump shocked both those inside and outside his administration last Thursday when he told visiting South Korean officials who had returned from talks with Kim in Pyongyang days earlier that he would be willing to accept the North Korean leader’s invitation to meet.
The officials had told Trump that Kim voiced a commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and pledged to refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests while talks were ongoing. They said he also “understands” that annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises would continue this year.
But while last week’s news seemed an incredible turn of events — all the more so as the U.S. and North Korea edged ever-so-closer to the precipice of war — longtime observers and former officials involved in past negotiations with Pyongyang said that what some viewed as concessions by the North were really nothing of the sort.
“One reason to be sober about this apparent breakthrough is that all the main sticking points are still there,” said Kevin Gray, a specialist in the two Koreas at the University of Sussex in England.
Indeed, Kim’s recent pledges and demands — including his denuclearization vow, request for a U.S. affirmation that it would not attack or invade North Korea and will provide a security guarantee, as well as a promise to work toward normalized ties — mirror those contained in a joint statement released in 2005 during the six-party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States.
Those talks, aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear program, effectively ended in failure when Pyongyang launched a rocket in April 2009 that was ostensibly part of its satellite program but was widely seen as a disguised test of long-range missile technology.
Frank Jannuzi, who was part of an earlier U.S. delegation that held talks with North Korea during the Clinton administration, echoed that there has been no shift in the regime’s position since the talks faltered.
“Nothing’s changed,” Jannuzi said when asked if Kim’s pledges contained anything new.
Jannuzi, a former State Department official who now serves as president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said the prospects of Pyongyang relinquishing its nuclear bombs was nil “unless they are convinced that they are receiving something of equal or greater value.”
But while the North’s demands may be old hat, the breakneck speed of Pyongyang’s nuclear advances, as well as the players now grappling with the issue, are new.
“The U.S., North Korea and South Korea all have different leaders with different approaches to foreign affairs and national security,” said Abraham Denmark, a former Asia official at the Pentagon who is now with the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
“Most critically, however, is that since the six-party talks last commenced, North Korea has made tremendous progress in developing nuclear and missile capabilities,” Denmark said.
“This changes the dynamics of negotiations radically,” he said.
North Korea declared in late November, after the successful launch of it’s longest-range missile to date, that it had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
And in his annual New Year’s address, Kim said that the entire United States is within range of his nuclear weapons, and that “a nuclear button” remained on his desk.
“This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment,” Kim said in the annual address, adding that the weapons would “be used only if our society is threatened.”
Although the White House’s policy of heaping “maximum pressure” on North Korea and Trump’s bellicose words have undoubtedly played some role in Kim’s decision making, many experts agree that it has been its nuclear breakthroughs — part of the Kim dynasty’s game plan for staying in power — that have played the biggest part in any summit that brings him and Trump together.
“One possible interpretation is that Trump’s approach of maximum pressure has forced North Korea to the table,” said Gray. “However, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that North Korea’s apparent willingness to talk comes almost directly after its announced ‘completion’ of its nuclear program.
“It is more convincing,” Gray said, “that North Korea has been engaged in a form of brinkmanship whereby it has sought to achieve maximum negotiation strength through acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Whatever the rationale, the success of diplomacy will also depend on how the president and his administration approach the talks, which could come by the end of May.
Top officials, as well as Trump himself, have said that he will take the lead on talks, bringing to the table an unorthodox approach to foreign policy and an unyielding desire to stray from diplomatic niceties.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about who’s going to take the lead on this. The president of the United States is going to take the lead,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
In this sense, his sudden and unexpected agreement last week to Kim’s invitation has spurred talk that any summit could be seen by the American president as a legacy-making “Nixon goes to China” moment. In 1972, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon met with Mao Zedong in a stunning move that led to rapprochement with a sworn enemy and a momentous geopolitical shift.
Such a view might be consistent with Trump’s character and ego, but some say the comparison forgets that Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had worked behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for the meeting with Mao.
“This is in no way Nixon’s visit to China,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in North Korea. “That was a calculated strategic shift by the United States. This was a tactical, reactive move in response to a North Korea initiative, agreed to by a U.S. president who thinks he’s a great negotiator and wants people to see him that way.”
But while Nixon dispatched Kissinger for a secret meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense, said that the State Department, Pentagon — and possibly even Trump’s own top advisers — “didn’t know about” his plan to accept the Kim invitation.
Indeed, many in the Trump administration appeared caught off guard and media reports quoting White House insiders said that Trump had made the decision off the cuff.
“It’s totally off-script, which means it’s totally devoid of critical thinking or historical context,” said Jackson. “This is unprecedented. Even Nixon to China had a series of back channel visits in preparation, and Nixon wasn’t threatening ‘fire and fury’ against Mao.”
Still, Oba said that although it was “unusual” for a high-level summit to come ahead of lower-level meetings, “this may be what we need to make progress and silence the critics who say the problem is that the United States isn’t willing to engage.”
The question now is what Trump can secure and what Kim is willing to concede — and vice versa.
Kim is likely deeply influenced by the fates of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, who both gave up fledgling nuclear programs and whose regimes were later destroyed.
He’s also fearful of U.S. and South Korean military training and plans for targeting him and other top officials with so-called decapitation strikes aimed at eliminating the North Korean leadership.
These factors, North Korea has said, point to what happens when countries forsake their nuclear weapons ambitions.
So giving up his nukes is likely something that will be — at best — a long-term issue, experts say.
Gray, of the University of Sussex, said this could create an environment for an agreement that recognizes the ultimate goal of North Korean denuclearization but leaves at least some of its arsenal intact.
“Presumably some deal on the halting of testing and further development and even the destruction of some of North Korea’s nuclear weapons would be possible, while allowing the North’s retention of a minimal deterrent,” Gray said. “This could occur while maintaining a stated goal to denuclearization, though that would be a long term goal.”
He said that such a move would be something along the lines of the Iran nuclear deal, though he added that Trump’s opposition to that agreement “is not an auspicious sign.”
In the short-term, the Center for Naval Analyses’ Gause believes that the North will be going into negotiations playing for a freeze in its nuclear ambitions that allows it to keep a so-called turnkey program, one that is not operating but could easily be rebooted immediately.
Such a program would put North Korea in a similar position to Japan, which is often labeled a de facto nuclear state because it has the technology, raw materials and capital to build atomic weapons quickly.
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said that pursuing a deal to slash the number of warheads and missiles in the North’s possession — an agreement that would leave it with latent nuclear capabilities — would be a realistic goal.
“Kim might agree to reduce his nuclear arsenal and retain a turnkey program that he could ramp up if necessary,” Glaser said. “That might be the best we can achieve.”
As for the repercussions of any deal that effectively recognizes Pyongyang as a nuclear power, throwing the global nonproliferation regime and associated treaties into chaos — long a red line for Washington — Gause said that while such a move would “essentially destroy a pillar of U.S. foreign policy … that might not be entirely a bad thing.”
“The Non-Proliferation Treaty is very difficult to enforce and really constrains U.S. foreign policy by taking options off the table,” he said. “If we get too wrapped up in nonproliferation in a case like North Korea, we will have no hope of coming to a peaceful conclusion.”