February 25, 2019

The Trump-Kim Summit and Beyond: What Positive Outcomes Look Like

On February 27, United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet for a second time in Hanoi in a bid to make concrete progress on their June 2018 Singapore statement. The first-ever summit between the two countries produced a vague vision to begin a new chapter in their relationship, build peace, and work toward complete denuclearization. But in the absence of a real agreement that prohibits nuclear and missile activities, Pyongyang has continued to develop its nuclear weapons capability. This time around, the stakes are even higher, as the summit results will determine whether denuclearization and peace are even possible.

In his 2019 New Year’s Day address, Kim signaled that there is substantial space for continued negotiations, but also warned that if Washington does not fulfill its Singapore promises and lift sanctions, then Pyongyang will embark on a “new path.” The ball is now in Washington’s court to configure the right quid pro quos that will compel Pyongyang to change its strategic calculus. Economic incentives alone will not be enough because both nuclear weapons and economic prosperity are national objectives that are critical to the Kim regime’s legitimacy and survival. Fundamentally, this Cold War problem will not be resolved completely without relieving Pyongyang’s security concerns. But the question is and has always been: at what price?

Beneath the mutual public displays of affection between the two leaders lies much uncertainty about the diplomatic process, which will be littered with landmines in the months ahead. Any outcomes, or lack thereof, will influence the future of the Korean Peninsula and the geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia. The road ahead will be a test of true colors and political wills for Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul, which have competing priorities when conducting negotiations and even achieving common goals. Both the Trump and Moon administrations face immense pressure to deliver bold results and leave behind a historic peace legacy within the timelines prescribed by their respective democracies. Meanwhile, Kim, who will likely reign for the next 40 to 50 years, has the luxury of time on his side.

For the United States, what would a positive outcome look like at the Trump-Kim summit and the rest of this year? Here are three key steps:

Step 1: In Hanoi, the United States and North Korea should agree on the end states for “denuclearization” and “peace” and announce a mini deal that concretely advances the 2018 Singapore statement. Simultaneously, the two leaders should announce the creation of a functioning process for negotiators to conclude a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap at an early date this year.

For the United States (and its allies South Korea and Japan), the end state for denuclearization is, and should continue to be, a North Korea without nuclear weapons capabilities and a peace treaty that would not alter its alliance with Seoul or military presence on the peninsula. For North Korea, however, denuclearization has long meant the elimination of the U.S. threat. The “threat” has historically been defined as the removal of U.S. strategic military assets (such as aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, missile defense systems, and stealth fighters) from and around the Korean Peninsula, an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. military troops. During his meeting with Trump, Kim will need to clarify whether he upholds the same definition as his predecessors before agreeing on a common definition.

Due to time constraints before the summit, the two leaders will likely settle for a “mini deal” in Hanoi instead of a detailed, comprehensive agreement. At best, a mini deal could include any number of initial measures related to the following: North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, fissile material production, an underground nuclear test site, a missile engine test facility, or ballistic missiles in exchange for some initial corresponding U.S. measures related to improving bilateral relations and creating the conditions for eventual peace on the peninsula.

However, a mini deal alone in Hanoi will not be sufficient. Trump and Kim should announce in writing that their teams will begin negotiating toward the conclusion of a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap by an early date this year. This roadmap should outline all tradeoffs until North Korea has zero nuclear weapons and a peace regime, underpinned by a peace treaty, is established on the Korean Peninsula. A summit outcome that fails to establish this process—in other words, conducting piecemeal negotiations that strike mini deals without a roadmap—will allow North Korea to dictate the terms and pace of denuclearization without ever touching key targets of its nuclear weapons programs. An announcement of these negotiations would raise confidence around the world that Pyongyang is still committed to working toward complete denuclearization as agreed to in Singapore.

Step 2. The United States should finalize a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap with North Korea at an early date this year outlining tradeoffs across the three elements agreed to in Singapore—denuclearization, new relationship, and peace regime—including milestones and timetables. Washington should engage in proportionate bargaining for all tradeoffs using value-based metrics.

A comprehensive roadmap would provide predictability for both sides about next steps and how the entire process ends. It would place all outstanding issues in a framework North Korea can understand, and the inclusion of timetables would provide for a truly unprecedented, historic agreement. Various phases of denuclearization could be pursued concurrently, if possible, to speed up the process. A “pause button” provision close to the finish line could be included in which either party can call a “time out,” reassess its plans, and decide to defer movement to the finish line until it decides to complete the process. All denuclearization measures should be conducted in a cooperative manner based on best practices adapted from existing Cooperative Threat Reduction programs.

There are many ways to configure specific tradeoffs, and it is difficult to propose exact bargains when negotiations are ongoing and fluid. However, Washington should adhere to certain principles to engage in proportionate bargaining. The price tag for U.S. concessions should reflect the degree of symbolism, reversibility, and strategic or political importance. Modest North Korean steps would include allowing inspectors into its Yongbyon nuclear complex, verifiably closing its underground nuclear test site, and verifiably dismantling it missile engine test facility. Modest U.S. reciprocal actions could include humanitarian assistance, a declaration of no hostile intent, and time-bound sanctions exemptions for inter-Korean humanitarian projects. High-value North Korean steps would include verifiably dismantling all nuclear weapons programs in return for high-value U.S. benefits like a peace treaty, full diplomatic relations, and the lifting of all sanctions.

The development of the inter-Korean cooperation track should be phased and synchronized with this roadmap to serve as benefits for proportionate denuclearization steps until Washington begins lifting important sanctions using the same value metrics above. Sanctions exemptions for economic projects should be withheld until Pyongyang takes significant denuclearization measures. Washington should consult closely with and eventually expand negotiations to formally include Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow prior to the conclusion of a comprehensive deal to ensure clarity and agreement on all parties’ roles in and contributions to the denuclearization-peace process.

Step 3. Washington and Pyongyang should agree in 2019 on a first-phase or interim implementing agreement on appropriate declarations and suspension of all fissile material production facilities anywhere in North Korea including corresponding verification measures. Washington should prioritize this as a first step toward implementing the comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap. Fissile materials (uranium and plutonium) are key ingredients in nuclear weapons, and without them, inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that deliver nuclear warheads would serve no strategic purpose. Pyongyang’s biggest insurance policy and a major U.S. concession is that it can keep its nuclear deterrent during this phase.

Rather than initially acceding to a declaration and suspension of all fissile material production programs, North Korea will likely put its existing offers on the table—inviting inspectors to Yongbyon, closing its nuclear test site, and dismantling its missile engine test facility. In reality, these are not meaningful or significant steps because the regime does not value these facilities.

If possible, step three could also include the surrendering of a limited number of nuclear weapons or ICBMs to provide the American public with greater confidence that Pyongyang is committed to nuclear diplomacy. This would be a positive gesture and not a major concession because the dismantlement of a few nuclear weapons or ICBMs will not significantly affect North Korea’s capabilities.

It will be crucial for the United States to verify that North Korea in fact declares an accurate list and freezes the production of fissile material. The two sides will need to negotiate an agreement on specific verification measures and the institutional arrangements to carry out these activities, such as experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).Verification activities should begin, if possible, in 2019, or as part of the next phase of denuclearization.

Washington must operate under the assumption that an initial declaration will not be complete or accurate and should refrain from blaming and shaming Pyongyang for discrepancies, which are not uncommon. As U.S. negotiators ask North Korea to clarify, supplement, or correct its declarations, the overall verification process must be conducted in a business-like, cooperative manner.

In return, sanctions exemptions could be considered for inter-Korean humanitarian projects and time-bound imports such as oil. Washington could also provide modest concessions like humanitarian assistance, a declaration that it has no intention to invade or topple the regime, an announcement that it will not apply new sanctions, or announcing the start to a process that will eventually declare the end of the Korean War.

The next phase of denuclearization—involving nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles—could begin in 2020 using a similar approach starting with a declaration and matching those steps with proportionate U.S. concessions.

The Road Ahead

The constellation of leaders in Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang—Trump, Moon, and Kim—each with their own unconventional styles generates both the hope of an unprecedented breakthrough and the risk of permanent instability or a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Even in the face of pre-existing pitfalls, deep skepticism, and time constraints, the Trump administration has an opportunity to achieve substantial, and even historic, results. Ambitious as complete denuclearization may be, it would be short-sighted for Washington to give up on this ultimate goal and eventually accept a nuclear-armed North Korea indefinitely. Many more complex and potentially dire consequences loom globally should acquiescence eventually become America’s policy of choice.

Duyeon Kim is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). This commentary contains ideas and recommendations that will be advanced in a forthcoming CNAS report.

  1. “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit,” The White House, June 12, 2018.
  2. Nuclear weapons capability in this paper means nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, production facilities, and delivery systems.
  3. For more on what “new path” might mean, see: Duyeon Kim, “What North Korea Wants from the Next Summit,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 23, 2019.
  4. On regime legitimacy, see: Leif-Eric Easley, “North Korean Identity as a Challenge to East Asia’s Regional Order,” Korean Social Science Journal, June 9, 2017, pp. 51-71.
  5. For more on North Korean beliefs, see: “The Full Text of Kim Jong-un’s Remarks at the Plenary Session of the Party Central Committee,” Korean Central News Agency, April 1, 2013.
  6. “Washington Warns Seoul Not to Move Too Quickly Without Progress from Pyongyang,” Nikkei Asian Review, November 21, 2018.
  7. North Korea first used the term “nuclear-weapon-free zone” to mean “denuclearization” in 1956. It is unclear if Kim Jong Un might have some flexibility when it comes to every detail, which is why Kim himself needs to clarify it in Hanoi. For more on what North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” and how it has evolved since 1956, see: Duyeon Kim, “The Panmunjeom Declaration: What It Wasn’t Supposed to be,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
  8. Duyeon Kim, “Washington Must Learn Pyongyang’s Rules,” Foreign Policy, July 30, 2018.
  9. Duyeon Kim, “What North Korea Wants from the Next Summit,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 23, 2019.
  10. “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit,” The White House, June 12, 2018.
  11. This “pause button” was proposed by nonproliferation expert Robert Einhorn in Seoul during meetings with senior South Korean officials in December 2018 should a denuclearization roadmap include a specific deadline for nuclear zero. However, a denuclearization agreement Einhorn deems more realistic is the incomplete and incremental approach: securing an honest declaration on fissile materials production facilities anywhere in North Korea, capping fissile material production, and securing a commitment (no deadline) to eventual denuclearization. The main incentive and reward for this interim arrangement would be that Pyongyang can keep its nuclear deterrent throughout the duration of this phase.
  12. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs were used to reduce and remove nuclear, chemical, and biological dangers after the Soviet Union collapsed and in other parts of the world. These programs were conducted in a cooperative manner between the U.S. and denuclearizing country.
  13. These have already been offered by Pyongyang.
  14. The two Koreas need sanctions to be lifted or exempted to engage in and complete their various projects. They have received a few exemptions so far (Winter Olympics, a survey to eventually relink rails and roads, and family reunions) but remaining projects of more importance like economic cooperation are at a standstill because of delays in the U.S.-North Korea negotiation track and denuclearization. Based on author’s meetings with senior South Korean officials, December 2018 and February 2019.
  15. All six countries in Northeast Asia have a stake, interest, and role in denuclearization and peace processes, which affect regional order.
  16. Kim Jong Un declared several times in 2017 and 2018 that his country no longer needs to test nuclear weapons because his state nuclear force is complete. This means that facilities for testing parts can be eliminated. See: “Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year’s Address (full text),” The National Committee on North Korea, January 1, 2018.
  17. The experts who handle nuclear weapons are different from those who handle fissile materials and components related to the nuclear fuel cycle. If Pyongyang hands over a limited number of nuclear weapons or missiles as a gesture, then the weapons experts could be drawn upon from a new group created under the auspices of the IAEA (which does not have an existing department of nuclear weapons experts), any of the five nuclear weapons states, or an ad hoc UN entity as was the case after the first Gulf War when UN Special Commission inspected nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, and ballistic missiles in Iraq even though the IAEA was involved.
  18. Discrepancies were found in declared nuclear inventories of even a very cooperative country like South Africa in 1991. For more, see: “Nuclear Verification in South Africa,” IAEA Bulletin, January 1995, pp.42-48.
  19. This was suggested by a former South Korean senior official during talks in Seoul, February 2019. The rationale would be to provide ad hoc, time-bound exemptions that adjust import quotas on items the North is in dire need of like oil in exchange for a “North Korean denuclearization milestone.” The official emphasized that such exemptions confined to inter-Korean cooperation projects are better than those that could damage the spirit and integrity of the international sanctions regime, and that there must not be any exemptions on North Korean exports because of the hard currency it can earn from them.
  20. Declaring the start to a process that will eventually declare the Korean War is over was first suggested by then South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon in 2006 during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. He emphasized that a war-ending declaration should come after denuclearization. For more, see his memoir: Song Min-soon, “Glaciers Move,” Changbi, 2016 (Korean language only).

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