The Push for a Trump-Kim Nuke Deal Is Far From Over
When it comes to an agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, doing it right beats doing it fast.
This week’s summit in Hanoi between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a bust for Trump. After much ballyhooing, he made no demonstrable progress toward reducing the nuclear and conventional threat North Korea poses to the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan. He diminished his diplomatic standing and credibility, and by extension that of the United States, by coming away with nothing. This round of negotiations should have taken place at the working level, carried out by Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special envoy for North Korea, alongside experts from the State, Defense, and Energy departments. Failure at that level would have gone close to unnoticed and could have been more convincingly described as part of an ongoing process.
Trump did, however, avoid seriously damaging U.S. national security interests. According to the account Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave at their press conference in Hanoi Thursday morning, the United States refused to lift all sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the destruction or shuttering of the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon. As a former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer who toured the facility in 2008, after the George W. Bush administration had negotiated its dismantling, only to see it reconstituted and expanded after Pyongyang pulled out of talks months later, this strikes me as wise. Washington should not trade its best leverage—unilateral and U.N. sanctions—for actions that North Korea can easily reverse.
The safest route for the United States is action for action: change implemented over time, to share risks and rewards and allow trust to build on both sides. As Trump said at the press conference, “I’d rather do it right than do it fast.”
But the United States must keep negotiations going. At a minimum, Washington needs to convince Pyongyang to halt its nuclear buildup, as in the case of Iran under former President Barack Obama. In order to do that, the United States should work with allies, China, and Russia to strengthen sanctions and deterrence. Sanctions are no longer the “maximum pressure” instrument described by Trump last year. According to media accounts, a report to the U.N. Committee on North Korea sanctions concluded various parties—including the United States, Singaporean banks, and a leading U.K. ship insurer —are violating sanctions wittingly and unwittingly. The report asserts North Korea “continues to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal.” The countries and businesses helping North Korea need to be warned and punished if they continue.
In his first summit with Kim, in Singapore last year, Trump weakened deterrence by canceling regular U.S.-South Korean military exercises. This week, he disparaged readiness exercises, which remain a warning to North Korea not to take conventional action against South Korea or the U.S. troops stationed there. Trump called the exercises “war games,” the term used by the North Korean government. In addition, he grumbled imprecisely, probably inaccurately, about their cost, which he put at $100 million. According to other estimates, the exercise canceled last year cost some $14 million, and there are only two large, annual, bilateral drills on the peninsula. But the bigger point is that these exercises are a means to minimize the cost in U.S. and South Korean lives of an attack launched from the North. We can only hope the Pentagon will prevail and the two scheduled for this spring—Foal Eagle and Key Resolve—will be allowed to proceed.
If the United States maintains pressure on North Korea, Washington can reduce the risk posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and conventional military. The North Korean government is motivated by its desire for increased trade and investment from friendly foreign entities. As Kim asserted in his 2019 New Year’s address, “Improving the people’s standard of living radically is a matter of greatest importance for our party and state.” But Pyongyang will seek to keep the price for sanctions relief low and, in the view of the U.S. intelligence community and the U.N. sanctions committee, to keep its nuclear weapons.
In the same New Year’s address, Kim threatened, “If the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world and, out of miscalculation of our people’s patience, it attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.” This is a two-way street. North Korea poses threat to a democratic, independent South Korea, and the United States is treaty-bound to protect South Korea so long as North Korea threatens use of force or seeks a compulsory reunification on its own terms. This is all the more reason to ask U.S. diplomats to keep their sleeves rolled up and increase international pressure until there is a proper deal to sign.