CANBERRA – Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump were hurling kindergarten insults at each other — “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission,” said Trump of Kim; “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” Kim retorted — while threatening to reduce East Asia to a post-atomic wasteland. Now, in a stunning and dramatic development, the two are to meet by May. Kim reportedly is willing to denuclearize and eager to talk directly to Trump, who has agreed.
But optimism about this turn of events must be tempered with cautious realism. North Korea is the nuclear problem from hell. Neither South Korea nor the United States can control the narrative; definitions of success or failure are highly relative; and Trump must enter the talks with no exit strategy. The six decades since the Korean War ended in 1953 — with a ceasefire but no peace agreement — have hardened an increasingly dangerous stalemate. Although neither side is likely to launch a premeditated nuclear attack, the risk of war from miscommunication, misperception or miscalculation is real.
All key announcements so far have come from Seoul, not Pyongyang or Washington. President Moon Jae-in, the son of refugees from North Korea, was elected on the promise of a two-track approach to the North: sanctions and diplomacy. This led to the Olympic initiative whereby Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, attended the Winter Games in Pyeongchang and the two countries competed as one team. Afterward, Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, and intelligence chief Suh Hoon traveled to Pyongyang and Washington, where, standing on the White House lawn with Cho Yoon-je, South Korea’s ambassador to the U.S. — but with no U.S. officials present — they announced the summit.
North Korea conducted the first of six nuclear tests in 2006. The regime’s nuclear program has many components and discussions could founder on what is to be proscribed, permitted and reversed, and in exchange for what concessions by the U.S. Will the deal require freezing North Korea’s capability at current levels, or complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization? The answer will depend on North Korea’s motives in getting the bomb and agreeing to talk.
For the Kim regime, the main lesson from the fates of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi was that only nuclear weapons can neutralize U.S. efforts at regime change. But the U.S. never attacked North Korea in the decades after 1953, when it clearly did not have the bomb. Conversely, the North’s growing nuclear capability provoked the U.S. into quietly preparing for war while hoping to avert one. Sanctions are an ineffective tool to force North Korea’s compliance with the U.N.’s demand that it give up nuclear weapons, and it could prove dangerous to conclude that their pain brought Kim to the talks.
Similarly, the threat of U.S. military strikes did little to concentrate Kim’s mind: Even Western analysts do not find that threat credible. The U.S. lacks the ability to identify, locate and destroy all three categories of nuclear targets: warheads, bomb production infrastructure and delivery vehicles. North Korea also has formidable conventional military capabilities and estimates of human casualties could total as many as 25 million, depending on the types of weapons used, the geographical theater of the conflict and the countries sucked into it.
In February, Moon said: “The United States needs to lower its bar for dialogue and the North, too, must show its willingness to denuclearize” as critical first steps. The summit became possible because the U.S. acceded to that counsel, turning its demand for denuclearization, which had previously been a precondition for talks, into a goal of negotiations.
But Kim will not trust unilateral U.S. guarantees. Therefore, any deal would require the support of China and Russia, economic and energy assistance from Japan and others, and endorsement by the U.N. Security Council. China and Russia have welcomed news of the direct talks, but Japan is uneasy.
All parties will explore six elements of a deal that North Korea is seeking: a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice, comprehensive sanctions relief, an end to U.S.-South Korea military exercises, diplomatic recognition, acceptance of North Korean space activities and nuclear energy assistance.
The North must halt all nuclear and missile tests until the summit and sanctions will remain in place. But will the U.S. and South Korea suspend military exercises? To North Korea, complete denuclearization means the withdrawal of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence from the peninsula.
The Kim-Trump summit is an opportunity that will be difficult to seize and easy to squander. For example, if Trump decertifies the Iran nuclear deal on May 12, ahead of the summit, the move would almost certainly call into question America’s good faith and ability to honor negotiated international agreements.
Moreover, there is the general matter of Trump’s ignorance, lack of foreign policy experience and the many unfilled posts in the U.S. State Department. There is still no U.S. ambassador in Seoul and Joseph Yun, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, retired this month. Without extensive diplomatic groundwork, the wily Kim could outsmart Trump. Participation in the Winter Olympics and willingness to sit down with Trump have already given the North a propaganda boost and a summit with the U.S. president will confer legitimacy on Kim.
Yet Trump has proven to be pragmatic, not ideological. His transactional approach could prove the key. Whether genuine or tactical, Moon has constantly praised Trump’s tough stance of maximum pressure as helpful to gaining Kim’s interest in a possible diplomatic solution.
Moreover, Trump carries no historical baggage and his decisiveness, even if rooted in impulsiveness, could provide the necessary breakthrough to overcome decades of accumulated inertia. Trump’s ability to reverse himself and deny having done so could be equally advantageous. If a good deal is on the table, nothing the U.S. has done, or that Trump has said in the past, will stop him from seizing the moment. On such slender threads of hope hang nuclear peace.
Ramesh Thakur, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, is Director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University. © Project Syndicate, 2018. www.project-syndicate.org