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Elephants in the Room
Give Peace With North Korea a Chance, but Remember Plan B
Diplomacy is working—for now.
The Korean Peninsula is no longer on the brink of war, which seemed like a real possibility in 2017, and the memory of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric has faded. Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last year set a different tone. But the geopolitical consequences of diplomatic failure, or so-called success—faux peace without real denuclearization—have not grown less terrifying as the prospect of a second summit looms.
After a year of high-level U.S. engagement with North Korea’s dynastic dictator, Pyongyang retains a formidable nuclear missile capability, while the historically ironclad U.S.-South Korean alliance is fraying around the edges.
For the moment, diplomacy remains preferable to the alternatives. Talking has achieved more than symbolic gains. North Korea continues a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and Kim has proclaimed the closure of his main nuclear testing range and an intercontinental ballistic missile engine test facility.
But those steps are a far cry from the elimination of fissile material and nuclear warheads, and further still from final, fully verified denuclearization of the peninsula.
Meanwhile, alliance readiness is eroding. The United States and South Korea have suspended major joint military exercises, and in agreement with Pyongyang, Seoul has established no-fly zones along the Demilitarized Zone and disarmed the Joint Security Area on the North-South border. A deadline for a new alliance burden-sharing agreement has come and gone. And with the U.S. president’s periodic ambivalence toward forward-based military forces, Pyongyang may mistake carelessness for not caring about the alliance.
At some point, if talking with Kim garners such marginal gains, U.S. and South Korean officials must focus anew on a strong alliance based on a shared commitment to democratic and free-market values. That point may be closer than the countries’ leaders wish, especially if Kim holds a second summit with Trump that does not lead to concrete steps toward denuclearization.
Alliances end when the threats they are poised against disappear, and there is no consensus on a new raison d’être. The procedural trappings of alliances may endure, but disputes over burden-sharing and other political issues eventually expose the security relationship to be an empty vessel.
Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the United States to meet North Korea “in the middle,” which was perhaps his way of pressuring Trump to make unilateral concessions. Unfortunately, it would soon become apparent that the middle of appeasement is still appeasement. Half-measures can fail wholly.
Yet a middle way, between the fantasy of Kim swiftly abandoning the only means he has of guaranteeing his survival and Pyongyang’s delusion that the United States will allow Kim to modernize North Korea without relinquishing his most threatening military systems, remains imaginable.
The challenge is to embrace the concept of reciprocity, the most axiomatic of prerequisites for successful negotiation.
Reciprocity works in theory but perhaps not in practice, when comparing the apples of peace agreements and sanctions relief with the oranges of denuclearization. Thus the ongoing stalemate, with Kim not sure what he is willing or able to give up by way of his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and the Trump administration undecided on what quid pro quo it would be willing to put on the table.
In order to navigate this tenuous next phase of summit diplomacy—in which a leaders’ agreement could further disable one of the greatest alliances in U.S. history or solidify North Korea’s bid to become a permanent nuclear-weapon state—there are several policy approaches the United States must take.
First, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in should hold a summit to showcase alliance solidarity.
Second, at that summit, the leaders should announce a new multiyear Special Measures Agreement, the accord by which South Korea shoulders costs for keeping U.S. forces stationed there. The uncertainty of the alliance’s future should not be left dangling, vulnerable to Kim’s divide-and-rule tactics.
Third, prior to a second Trump-Kim summit, North Korea should commit to specific denuclearization measures, and they should be conveyed to not just the White House but also Congress.
In return, Trump could offer an informal declaration of peace, coupled with calibrated sanctions relief. Calibrated might mean allowing South Korea to move ahead on an inter-Korean project such as expanding rail links, as well as calling for an escrow account with Kim’s name on it but access to follow only after substantial denuclearization steps commence. Sanctions relief will require negotiations, but the point would be to start moving forward on incentives for Kim to allow a verifiable end to fissile material production and at least some destruction of nuclear-related programs.
Fourth, in the event the summit is successful, U.S. and South Korean officials should commence a strategic dialogue on the future rationale and architecture of their alliance. However, if talks are unproductive, then U.S. officials need to press South Korean counterparts to resume larger military exercises, dial up sanctions, and otherwise begin to move away from the brink of peace. If the United States cannot resolve the North Korea nuclear problem, then it must do more than either ignore it or, worse, reward it.
Keep at diplomacy so long as it is productive. But remember that deterrence and containment of North Korea constitute a proven plan B—provided the U.S.-South Korean alliance remains watertight.