On North Korea, Trump needs to go back to the drawing board – Washington Examiner
In the days since President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended their talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, the after-action reports and commentary have fallen back on the lack of a nuclear agreement between Washington and Pyongyang. Trump administration officials have spent the preceding week defining the summit as a success due to Trump’s willingness to walk away from the table. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, is doing everything in his power to keep the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic track alive.
All of the coverage about who won and lost in Hanoi, however, is nothing but a substance-free Washington, D.C., parlor-game. The real takeaway of the summit is that the Kim regime will not denuclearize regardless of what the United States offers at the negotiating table. The sooner Washington finally comes to this realization, the sooner the White House can shift its concentration on the paramount U.S. national security objective: the avoidance of a war and the ushering of a peace on the Korean Peninsula.
America’s superior military capacity has kept the United States secure from a North Korean attack ever since the Korean War concluded more than 65 years ago. Deterrence and the certainty of an overwhelming, forceful U.S. response has deterred the Kim regime from even thinking about utilizing its nuclear weapons for offensive purposes. Successive U.S. administrations, however, have continued to underestimate their deterrent power and ability to keep Pyongyang in check.
U.S. policy on North Korea over the last 25 years has been based on the lofty idea that Pyongyang’s unilateral nuclear disarmament is possible. American presidents as far back as Bill Clinton have engaged the North Koreans in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy for exactly this purpose. Clinton offered political and economic normalization to North Korea as rewards for the Kim regime’s nuclear dismantlement. The George W. Bush administration did much the same thing, promising to “take steps to normalize [U.S.-North Korean] relations” in the event of Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Trump’s approach in Vietnam was in many ways a reaffirmation of previous U.S. policy — start dismantling your nukes, and you will see economic profits beyond your wildest dreams.
Predictably, the North Koreans weren’t buying it. At the end of two days of talks, the result wasn’t the one the president was looking for.
It’s time for a fresh approach. As the parties conduct an assessment of the latest summit, Washington needs to come to the unvarnished reality that Kim Jong Un is absolutely not going to eliminate his nuclear weapons arsenal — certainly not now, probably not ever.
With the exception of South Africa in the last years of apartheid, no country has spent untold billions of dollars over decades building an indigenous nuclear weapons program with tens of nuclear warheads in the stockpile, only to get rid of it for the promise of sanctions relief. Kim doesn’t appear like the kind of man who will be the first.
Just because it’s uncomfortable for the foreign policy establishment to admit doesn’t make it any less true.
If Trump hopes to make any forward progress on the North Korea issue, he must set his sights on what is realistic and most important: tranquility on the Korean Peninsula and non-adversarial relations between Washington and Pyongyang. The United States has had constructive relations with nuclear adversaries in the past, from the Soviet Union in the 1950s to Pakistan in the 1990s. U.S. officials may not have found it particularly attractive, but they recognized diplomatic communication was a necessary part of conducting effective, principled statecraft in a highly complicated and multidimensional world.
While North Korea’s denuclearization could remain a long-term aspiration, Washington should not preface the opportunity of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula on accomplishing this ideal. Indeed, insisting on it is hardwired for the same floundering inertia that has guided Washington’s North Korea policy for more than a generation.
Before U.S. and North Korean diplomats come back to the negotiating table, Trump should radically change his strategy. Instead of re-submitting a grand denuclearization-for-normalization deal that demands a total dismantlement of Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction and missile programs in its entirety (one Kim Jong Un will again reject) the president should deliver a message to Kim that he is willing to explore better diplomatic relations and open to supporting specific inter-Korean economic projects if his regime ceases threatening the U.S. and its allies and stops selling weapons of mass destruction technology around the world.
Critics will harshly condemn this change-of-approach as an undeserved, U.S. reward to one of the most vile regimes on the planet. Yet many of these critics are the same people who were intricately involved in the decades of policy failure that has produced neither peace on the Korean Peninsula or a rollback of North Korea’s nuclear capability.
The Washington policy community should no longer fall into the trap of seeing peace as a leverage point or a chip to be used in exchange for concessions from the other side. This is especially the case when the concession Washington is hoping for (a North Korea stripped of its entire nuclear infrastructure) is completely unrealistic.
There may come a time in Kim’s later years when he begins to believe that a nuclear weapons deterrent is no longer required for his country’s security. Stranger things have happened in history. Yet Kim is nowhere near this point today, and it’s highly unlikely he will be anytime soon.
Trump campaigned on being a president who would speak hard-truths to the public and shake the policy establishment out of its bad habits. A policy evolution on North Korea would be a chance for him to do both.
The North Korean nuclear weapons program is not a problem to be solved. At best, it’s one to be managed. With a decision by the president to embrace courageous diplomacy with more realistic goals, the United States will have the tools to more effectively manage it and keep the public secure.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities.