Elephants in the Room
Donald Trump Can Still Forge a Viable Nuke Deal With Kim Jong Un
In the wake of the failed Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in February, optimism that an acceptable deal between the two might still be possible is in short supply. In a post-summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week, Trump reiterated what he said in Hanoi: “We’re talking about the big deal … we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons.”
Although the Hanoi summit did not produce the results Trump wanted and ultimately served as a stark lesson on the limits of top-down diplomacy, it did serve a function: Discussions among officials on both sides at the working level, although they fell short of an agreement, did establish the beginning of what still might be sculpted into a deal both leaders could live with. Trump himself said after his meeting with Moon, “There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen.”
Kim upped the ante in a speech to North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly last week, emphasizing that that he had “no intention of repeating the kind of summit meeting like the one held in Hanoi.” Instead, Kim told his rubber-stamp legislature that any “future talk” would be contingent on a “bold decision from the U.S.” to “abandon its current calculation and approach us with a new one” and would require “a certain methodology that can be shared with us.” As a former member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff, I believe it is the role of diplomacy to probe all such potential openings, in the hope of securing a path to a deal that protects U.S. interests.
What should these “bold” steps look like? Three preliminary moves would help set the table, change the atmosphere, and enable meaningful negotiations on both sides.
First, elevate Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, to presidential envoy status, reporting directly to Trump. To date, Pyongyang has not responded to Washington’s entreaties for follow-up senior working-level talks, preferring to deal only with Trump. Elevating Biegun would introduce a new level of seriousness and would make clear to Pyongyang that he speaks for Trump as the official point person, equivalent to Trump’s designation of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer as the point person on U.S.-China trade talks, which has facilitated diplomacy.
Second, the United States should go back to the United Nations and get a new Security Council resolution authorizing the suspension of some sanctions against North Korea, in proportion to verified steps it takes to dismantle its nuclear weapons program—but with an automatic snapback provision to return to maximum pressure if Pyongyang cheats or fails to implement. This compromise would get past the all-or-nothing fear of losing pressure by allowing the United States the flexibility to offer the sanctions relief that North Korea craves without giving up all leverage. Based on discussions with numerous diplomats, my sense is that Moscow and Beijing would not oppose such a resolution.
Third, to add impetus to the U.N. diplomacy, the United States should propose a trilateral U.S.-China-Russia mechanism to boost coordination on North Korea. Any solution will require the participation and support the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The International Atomic Energy Agency can and must monitor and verify fissile material and facilities, but it can only assist in dismantling or removing fissile materials and nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia built up hard-won experience dismantling nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. Such a mechanism would get Kim’s attention—and build leverage. At the same time, the United States should start planning for a cooperative U.S.-Russia-South Korea-North Korea institution to retrain and reemploy North Korean nuclear scientists, technicians, and engineers as a nonproliferation priority so that they don’t end up migrating to Iran, Syria, or elsewhere.
Once these steps are in place, the starting point for successful senior working-level negotiations would be to build on North Korea’s offer to dismantle all its nuclear facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. This complex of more than 200 buildings includes a full nuclear fuel cycle, plus an undisclosed, outlying uranium enrichment facility—call it Yongbyon+.
As Biegun said in a speech at Stanford University in the run up to the Hanoi summit, the Trump team aimed in Hanoi to make “significant and verifiable progress” and avoid the mistake previous administrations made: getting sucked into interminable, fruitless talks. A true deal would require Kim to declare, ultimately, the inventory of all Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities and fissile material. Absent that, there is no way to know if North Korea has actually denuclearized. To make it easier for Kim to digest, the declaration and implementation could be broken down into several stages.
In the first stage, North Korea would declare the inventory of all the facilities and fissile material at its undeclared site outside Yongbyon, disabling and dismantling all nuclear-related facilities there, verified by the IAEA and though 24/7 monitoring. This stage should also include a formal North Korean agreement to a freeze of all production of nuclear materials. This might not encompass Kim’s entire program but would account for a large part of it.
The essential question is: How much would this Yongbyon+ package be worth to the United States? Securing the denuclearization of this facility should be seen as a worthwhile objective. If North Korea complies, the United States should extend a proportional mix of benefits: the targeted suspension of sanctions, with snapback measures built in to maintain leverage, allowing South Korea to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint North-South project, again subject to snapback sanctions; allowing for increased oil imports and some level of coal exports; and offering support for Pyongyang to initiate dialogue with the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization to discuss future membership for North Korea. This first stage would also require a firm commitment from Kim in terms of milestones and timelines for subsequent stages, and clear follow-on steps.
This stage of the deal would also include other commitments made in the Singapore summit declaration during the first meeting between Trump and Kim last year, starting with an end-of-war declaration bringing formal peace to the Korean Peninsula as prelude to initiating four-party (United States, South Korea, China, and North Korea) talks on a peace treaty, including convention force-reduction talks, based on the principle of parallel movement with denuclearization steps. In addition to peace talks, the agreement would need to specify next steps, an agreed timeline, and a mutually agreed definition of the end state: IAEA-verified denuclearization, weapons disabled and removed from North Korea; reentering the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a nonweapons state; a peace regime; and normalized diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan, which would include facilitating U.S. and other international private sector engagement. Subsequent stages would focus on full implementation of these agreements, fulfilling each milestone and timeline.
To change the tone, the United States should invite North Korean sports teams to play friendly matches with U.S. teams, along with other sport and cultural exchanges—how about Kim’s favorite band, Moranbong, gets an invite to play Madison Square Garden? To underscore U.S. support for the North’s economic future, Washington could offer to train the country’s MBAs, lawyers, judges, and accountants, perhaps jointly with South Korea.
Renewed diplomacy along these lines would not guarantee success. But it would almost certainly clarify intent on both sides. Dismantling a large chunk of North Korea’s nuclear program would certainly begin to build trust. If Kim balked or refused the necessary transparency of a declaration and IAEA verification, he would be telling the United States that he is unwilling to commit to a verifiable deal. Similarly, if Kim withdrew from membership talks with the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO, he would also be sending a signal: that he is not interested in opening his economy, in creating a climate for investment, or in joining the regional and global economy to generate prosperity, as China and Vietnam have done.
At the same time, for the Trump administration, proceeding in a multistage process rather than toward one big deal would demonstrate that the United States is serious when it says it will accept and assist North Korea if it lets go of its status as a country with a nuclear weapons program.
This may all be too ambitious. There may be too much water under the bridge after a quarter-century of failed diplomacy. But compared to the alternative, a good-faith effort to achieve the art of the possible makes imminent sense.