WASHINGTON - Kim Jong Un rang in the new year stylishly, in a dapper Western business suit and tie, albeit still sporting his odd signature haircut. But the new look did not alter his core message of late: He wants sanctions relief, he wants it now, and he wants it before there can be any real movement on North Korean denuclearization. While he says he is willing to participate in another summit with U.S. President Donald Trump — which he will backstop by meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, of course — he is rolling out vaguely ominous rhetoric about “no choice but a new way to safeguard our sovereignty.” What is the next move in the complex pas de deux between the United States and North Korea?
Kim is clearly losing patience as the “normal” playbook of negotiations used so effectively by his father, Kim Jong Il, is not achieving any substantive results in improving the torpid economy of his dictatorship of some 25 million suffering souls. In previous rounds with the West, by now the Hermit Kingdom would have been given significant concessions: lighter sanctions, food and medicine shipments, access to Western technology, free trade zones with South Korea. The lack of tangible progress for Kim to display to his population is starting to worry him, and even the charm of appearing on a global stage with the U.S. president can’t increase his GDP.
For the U.S., the key words are simple: strategic patience. It would be foolish to grant any concessions without a straightforward list of North Korean nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and test and storage sites. Such an accounting would almost undoubtedly not be initially complete, but at least it would represent a starting point, and it could be fact-checked against the significant database of existing intelligence. Then and only then should the U.S. consider recommending to the international community a reduction in sanctions — which over time could lead to actual reductions in the North’s stockpile of 30 to 60 weapons.
Let’s face it, we know what a war on this peninsula would look like. In the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands died in a war without nuclear weapons. Hampton Sides’ superb new book about the climactic battle of that war at the Chosin Reservoir, “On Desperate Ground,” should be required reading for negotiators on both sides. As the White House begins what will be a difficult 2019 both domestically and internationally, there are five key points for those negotiators to bear in mind if we are to avoid war and land this situation diplomatically.
First, while there can be some concessions on sanctions after a real, verifiable list of Korean nuclear capabilities, total sanctions relief must remain tied to total, irreversible and verifiable elimination of all of North Koreans nuclear weapons. But partial relief if both sides show good faith could move things forward from the current deadlock.
Second, there cannot be U.S. troop reductions from the Korean Peninsula under current circumstances. No doubt the sight of Trump unilaterally pulling troops out of Syria and potentially Afghanistan has Kim salivating. And during the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump proposed pulling the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea out as a cost-savings measure. This must be a firm, articulated red line for the U.S.: not a single soldier goes home until the nuclear issue is fully and finally settled.
A third key is simply increasing our intelligence and cyber efforts against the Kim regime. The more we understand, the better our chances will be in the negotiations. In particular, this means working closely with our South Korean partners. They understand North Korea vastly better than we do, seeing it as they do through shared language, culture and history. We should spend more time listening to them and less time yelling at the North Koreans. When the Nobel Peace Prizes are (hopefully) eventually handed out for peace on the peninsula, top of the list should be not Kim or Trump (who admittedly will deserve part of the credit), but President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. He has been the adult in the room time and time again. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Fourth, we are going to have grit our teeth and get China involved in the negotiations. The quicker we get from two-party talks (U.S. and North Korea) to four-party talks (adding South Korea and China) the better. The Chinese are showing ambivalence — they don’t want a war (and waves of refugees), but they don’t want a unified Korea either. Assuming Trump and Xi can keep the two superpowers out of a full-blown trade war, the Korean Peninsula could become a zone of cooperation for Washington and Beijing. Four-party talks would help the process, although admittedly slow it down (back to strategic patience).
Finally, moving ahead will require serious diplomatic and military creativity. Kim is not going to simply hand over his inventory for a promise of sanctions relief, correctly assessing that once the weapons are gone the next step could be new sanctions applied, for example, in response to the million-plus person gulag of torture camps he is running. He will want to have both the weapons and technology as long as possible.
So both sides will have to work toward confidence-building measures that might include graduated sanction relief over time tied to further specific North Korean steps; international monitoring by teams selected by both sides that would include Chinese, Russian, U.S. and EU representatives; physical separation of warheads and delivery systems spread across North Korea; and verifiable physical limitations on ranges of delivery systems.
None of this will be easy to negotiate, and the Trump and Kim summit (if it happens) will be only another step on a long and winding road. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to have the right disposition and temperament to move this forward, the motivations for both sides are high to avoid a war, and North Korea is not ideologically rigid in the way the ayatollahs of Iran are. There is a better than even chance we can avoid a horrendous war, but it will require, above all, patience in a dangerous new year.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist James Stavridis is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO.