North Korea Needs a Real Deal, Not a Trump Special
The Hanoi summit can be a step forward—if both sides commit.
The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be a decisive moment. Another meeting that ends, as Singapore did, with faux peace over genuine denuclearization steps and more front-loading of strategically important U.S. concessions will botch any chance of rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capability, which has advanced to unprecedented levels.
That will force the world to live permanently with a regime that has yet to learn the basics of being a responsible nuclear state and continues to violate human rights. The Vietnam summit this month will determine whether real denuclearization of North Korea is possible ever, and how much Washington is willing to pay for it, while ensuring the regime’s survival and the country’s prosperity.
The U.S. negotiating team knows what constitutes a good deal, but there is a serious risk of Trump ad-libbing his way into a bad deal, as he did in Singapore in June 2018, by relinquishing vital bargaining chips that disadvantage U.S. interests and Asian allies’ security. There, Trump announced in his post-summit press conference, without Seoul or his administration’s awareness, that annual and defensive U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises (which he called “war games” and “provocative,” echoing North Korea’s descriptions of them) would be halted. The worst-case scenario, for South Korea in particular, would be if Kim tricks Trump into believing (inaccurately) that nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could be traded for U.S. troops, despite his administration’s efforts to restrain him from such unscripted deals with serious consequences for the security and stability of the region.
The Singapore joint statement expressed good intentions—but it was not a real agreement that obligated Pyongyang or held it accountable to taking concrete steps toward denuclearization. For North Korea, that meant nuclear business as usual last year despite the historic first summit. This is why a real nuclear deal must be struck sooner rather than later.
In Hanoi, the first order of business for Trump and Kim is to finally agree on what “denuclearization” and “peace” mean. Washington sees denuclearization as the total elimination of all nuclear weapons, parts, materials, facilities, and delivery systems (ballistic missiles) in North Korea. Pyongyang, on the other hand, sees it as including the removal of U.S. strategic assets and nuclear- and nuclear-capable weapons and the eventual elimination of the U.S. military presence and influence on and around the Korean Peninsula.
For North Korea, an end to the U.S. presence also overlaps with its definition of peace. In contrast, the United States defines peace as the end to hostilities with the North but maintaining a strong alliance with the South and some military presence on the Korean Peninsula. Similarly, most, if not all, bargaining chips will need to be mutually defined, from scientific concessions such as what happens to the Yongbyon nuclear facility to less sensitive concessions such as liaison offices.
Equally urgent is an agreement on a comprehensive denuclearization-peace road map. Outlining each trade-off with timetables all the way to zero nuclear weapons and the establishment of a peace regime would make for a truly unprecedented deal. Whether the job can be completed in practice by its target deadline is a separate matter. But this road map would provide each side with predictability and place all outstanding issues in a framework that North Korea can understand. The North Korea problem is not solely a nuclear issue but one that is entangled in many complex regional issues. This road map should serve as the backbone for minideals to carry out every step until the finish line.
Such an agreement can’t be concluded before the summit on Feb. 27-28. That means the leaders will understandably be inclined to declare an eye-catching minideal to showcase that progress was made in advancing the vision laid out in Singapore.
In this case, it will be vital for Trump and Kim to announce a minideal in conjunction with the creation of a functioning diplomatic process, in writing, for their negotiators to conclude a comprehensive denuclearization-peace road map at an early date this year following the Hanoi summit. Ad hoc deals or piecemeal negotiations absent an agreed-on road map would allow Pyongyang to dictate the terms, pace, and duration of the diplomatic process without making a dent in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In other words, denuclearization could stop at a stage outlined in a minideal without advancing to other critical targets of the regime’s nuclear weapons programs. An announcement about road map negotiations would also help raise confidence among the public and the world that Pyongyang is committed to working toward complete denuclearization, for now.
A minideal could involve any number of activities related to freezing or destroying fissile material and facilities, dismantling Yongbyon, or verifiably closing underground nuclear test sites and missile test facilities. A prudent and significant first step, however, would be for Pyongyang to declare all fissile material production facilities and programs anywhere in the country, not just at Yongbyon. Fissile materials are the key ingredients in a nuclear weapon, and this approach would be aiming for the bull’s-eye.
However, the Trump administration might want a minideal to include nuclear warheads or ICBMs. Long-range missiles threaten the U.S. homeland and, together with nuclear warheads, are far more tangible goals to show the public than a scientific agreement on fissile materials that are hard to depict with a prop. But with a mini-ICBM deal, the devil would truly be in the details. A positive agreement would cover one or a few nuclear warheads or ICBMs or even go further in agreeing to verifiably halt and roll back Pyongyang’s ICBM production program.
Handing over one or several ICBMs or nuclear warheads would constitute a symbolic gesture that signals Pyongyang is committed to the process of diplomacy. This would only be a token, albeit a positive one, because surrendering one or a few weapons would not alter or reduce the North’s arsenal or capability in any meaningful way, especially since the regime would retain production capability.
Washington also needs to provide some incentives in return for proportionate North Korean denuclearization measures, balanced against what Pyongyang provides. For example, modest North Korean steps would include allowing inspectors full access to Yongbyon, verifiably closing its underground nuclear test sites, and verifiably dismantling its missile engine test facilities. Modest U.S. benefits could comprise humanitarian assistance, a declaration of no hostile intent, and ad hoc, time-bound inter-Korean humanitarian cooperation projects that allow sanctions exceptions and waivers (for example, one-time oil imports, food aid, reforestation projects, etc.).
High-value North Korean steps would involve the verified dismantlement and removal of all fissile materials and production programs, nuclear weapons, and nuclear weaponization programs. High-value U.S. concessions would consist of a peace treaty, full diplomatic relations, and the lifting of U.N. Security Council sanctions.
The regime will be aiming to achieve near-term goals for economic development and security. Tangible gains include lifting sanctions, permanently halting U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, and beginning a process that establishes a peace regime underpinned by a peace treaty among the two Koreas, the United States, and China to reduce or rid U.S. troops from the peninsula.
Washington is right to dangle enormous economic goodies. But a regime built on the core principle of self-reliance and independence may not be too eager to pocket an offer that relies heavily on anyone, particularly another big foreign power, for its prosperity. In the end, nuclear disarmament will be difficult without addressing the regime’s fundamental security concerns. At some point, a more formal negotiating structure will also need to be created that gives a seat at the table for all Northeast Asian countries—the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia—because of their roles and contributions in the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and economic and energy assistance to North Korea.
As important as it is to produce concrete results in Hanoi, it is even more important to prevent a bad Trumpian deal that hurts America’s interests and its allies’ security. The stakes are much higher than ever before. Off-the-cuff promises could erode the surest guarantor of stability in the region. Another U.S. policy failure will only fuel South Korean and Japanese insecurities and even tempt them to seriously consider their own nuclear options. Failure would also provide a handy playbook for other nuclear aspirants, such as Iran; tarnish U.S. nonproliferation credentials; and undermine the global nonproliferation regime. While the next few weeks and months will be littered with pitfalls, the Trump administration can still achieve substantial results and prevent a looming crisis.