June 27, 2019

Negotiating Toward a Denuclearization-Peace Roadmap on the Korean Peninsula

Executive Summary

The second summit between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, on February 27 and 28, 2019, in Hanoi, failed to produce an agreement despite heightened expectations. No deal was better than signing a bad deal, as insufficient preparations increased the risk that a haphazard agreement would compromise American interests and the security of key allies South Korea and Japan. But the failure to agree on a date for the next working-level meeting was not an encouraging sign.

Although both negotiating teams assured the public that diplomacy is still alive, the road ahead remains as uncertain as ever. Official statements from Washington and Pyongyang immediately following the summit revealed that large gaps in understanding still exist on fundamental issues: the desired end state for denuclearization and price tags for bargaining chips in a compromise. Washington needed to know that any denuclearization steps would eventually lead to the complete elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capability. However, it appears that Kim was unable to indicate to Trump that he would be willing to eventually abandon all of his nuclear weapons and related programs. Hanoi also confirmed that sanctions are effective: Kim wanted United Nations Security Council sanctions applied since March 2016 to be lifted in return for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The North’s offering price—its Yongbyon nuclear complex alone—was not enough for Washington to lift these sanctions, because there are key nuclear facilities outside Yongbyon that aid the regime’s nuclear weapons development. Despite two summits, in the absence of a real nuclear agreement, North Korea reportedly continues its nuclear development and missile-related activities. Washington in turn must continue to calculate the right quid pro quos to compel Pyongyang to change its strategic calculus. Economic incentives alone will not be enough, because both nuclear weapons and economic prosperity are critical to the regime’s legitimacy and survival.

The way forward will be a test of true colors and political wills for Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul, which all have competing priorities on objectives and modalities for negotiations. Their decisions or missteps will affect not only the future of the Korean peninsula but also the larger geopolitics of Northeast Asia, because the North Korea problem is not simply a nuclear one. Both Trump and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in face domestic and personal pressures to deliver bold results and leave behind a historic peace legacy within the timelines prescribed by their respective democracies. Kim, mean-while, will likely reign for the next 40 to 50 years and has the luxury of time. Still, the Trump administration can achieve substantial—perhaps even historic—results, despite deep skepticism and the difficulties inherent to negotiating with a savvy nuclear-armed regime.

The way forward will be a test of true colors and political wills for Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul, which all have competing priorities on objectives and modalities for negotiations.

This report examines pathways toward denuclearization and peace on the peninsula by offering a conceptual framework and principles for a political roadmap informed by a technical understanding of nuclear issues, to guide Washington as it navigates a range of options in negotiations until 2020. Recognizing the inevitable linkages between denuclearization and the peace process and the effects the two issues have on each other, this report proposes and emphasizes the need for a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap. The task and key challenge for the United States is to configure the right tradeoffs to create incentives for North Korea to take denuclearization steps without giving away too many vital rewards too soon, to maintain negotiating leverage. It is important to prevent Pyongyang from pocketing early gains and walking away from the process without making significant progress on denuclearization. Value-based metrics should be used in determining appropriate bargains. In its negotiations with North Korea, the United States should adhere to the following key principles:

  • Engage in proportionate bargaining.
    1. First, determine how valuable the denuclearization target is for North Korea and for the United States. At the same time, determine how valuable the U.S. concession is for Pyongyang and for Washington.
    2. Second, ascertain whether the tradeoff is proportionate or whether North Korea’s asking price outweighs its offer.
  • Categorize U.S. and North Korean concessions along a spectrum of modest to high value.
    1. U.S. Concessions: Modest concessions include humanitarian assistance; declaration of no hostile intent; declaration of no new sanctions enforcement; and ad hoc, time-bound sanctions exemptions for inter-Korean humanitarian cooperation projects and imports of such necessity items as oil, among others. High-value concessions would include full diplomatic relations, a peace treaty, and U.N. and U.S. sanctions relief.
    2. North Korean Concessions: Modest concessions include partial or full-access inspections of and suspension of nuclear activities at Yongbyon, no nuclear or missile testing, and verified closure of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, among others. High-value concessions would include the verified dismantlement and elimination of all fissile materials and production facilities; verified dismantlement and removal of all nuclear weapons and weaponization programs; and verified dismantlement and elimination of missiles and nuclear-weapons-related delivery systems.

The Road Ahead

The following recommendations are intended to guide policymakers as they negotiate with Pyongyang over the next two years. These recommendations are based on a complete and phased, but concurrent denuclearization model with a clear understanding that while most of the implementing steps suggested could, at best, begin in the timeframe indicated, they will inevitably take years, if not decades, to complete. A phased process is inevitable even if an agreement is reached to eliminate all targets of denuclearization simultaneously, because of the scientific and technical work involved. If a third summit takes place without sufficient time for the two sides to negotiate this roadmap, then the two leaders could at least sign a mini deal that would delineate first steps and establish a negotiating process to execute a roadmap at an early date.

Looking forward, U.S. policymakers should take the following actions:

  • Step 1. Commit to maintaining direct and regular communications with Pyongyang to sustain a negotiations process amid hiccups, stalemates, and potential walkouts.
  • Step 2. Conclude a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap in 2019 that would articulate the quid pro quos of every milestone, with timetables, until there are no nuclear weapons capabilities in North Korea and a peace regime is established on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Step 3. Obtain an interim agreement on fissile materials in 2019—as a first step in implementing the roadmap—that would involve a declaration by Pyongyang of fissile-material production and fuel-cycle-related facilities anywhere in North Korea in exchange for modest U.S. concessions and ad hoc sanctions exemptions on inter-Korean humanitarian projects.
  • Step 4. Secure an agreement, in 2019 if possible, to abandon nuclear weapons and a declaration by North Korea of its nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapons-related ballistic missile programs in exchange for medium-value U.S. concessions.
  • Step 5. Obtain a final agreement on fissile mate-rials in 2020 that will declare all of North Korea’s fissile-material stockpile in exchange for medium-value U.S. concessions.
  • Step 6. Begin verified disablement and dismantlement activities in 2020, if possible, of programs involving fissile material, nuclear weapons, and nuclear-weapons-related ballistic missiles in exchange for phased high-value U.S. concessions.
  • Step 7. Agree on a conversion program in 2020, if possible, that would transition North Korea’s nuclear-weapons- and fuel-cycle-related facilities to peaceful uses and redirect employees to non-nu-clear-weapons-related jobs.


U.S. policy on North Korea is grounded in the aim of deterring Pyongyang from starting another war and using a nuclear weapon. After the regime acquired nuclear weapons capability, the policy evolved to include eliminating such capability (“denuclearization”). Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the ultimate goal of denuclearization has always been and should continue to be eliminating all nuclear weapons capabilities. Interim goals have always been and should continue to be limiting and reducing capabilities. Yet despite repeated attempts to stop and roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs, the North’s capabilities have over the long term continued to advance, as the Kim regime has taken advantage of what it sees as America’s strategic weakness: a democratic system lacking policy continuity and beset with gaps in historical memory among officials due to political and seasonal rotations of personnel.

Three preceding administrations—those of Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—tried and failed to denuclearize North Korea. President Donald Trump believes he can be the one to finally solve the North Korean nuclear problem, but he must navigate a more complicated negotiating environment than his predecessors. To start, Kim Jong Un is much different from his father, Kim Jong Il. The North under Kim Jong Un has rapidly advanced its nuclear and missile capability to an unprecedented level of sophistication. Pyongyang’s arsenal now includes thermonuclear weapons; inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that, though likely lacking accurate targeting, could reach the U.S. homeland; solid-fuel missiles that, compared to liquid-fuel missiles, can be launched faster; and road mobile launchers that make it easier to hide missiles and more difficult for the U.S. to preemptively strike them. Such qualitative and quantitative technological achievements have given Pyongyang confidence that it has leverage in negotiations, greater international standing, and more options for nuclear use in both peacetime and war. Moreover, Kim Jong Un is also bent on developing his country’s economy (the second pillar of his byungjin strategic line; the first pillar is nuclear weapons development) while receiving international recognition as a normal leader of a normal, nuclear state.

This more complicated environment was the backdrop for the first-ever summit between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader in June 2018. Meeting in Singapore, the two leaders agreed on a vague four-point statement to begin a new chapter in the U.S.-North Korea relationship that includes working toward complete denuclearization. But Pyongyang continues to develop its nuclear weapons programs in the absence of a real nuclear deal, even though it is in violation of all U.N. Security Council resolutions banning its nuclear and missile activities and possession. This situation makes it imperative to negotiate a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap with timetables sooner rather than later.

However, the second Trump-Kim summit, held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019, did not produce any agreement to implement the vision outlined in Singapore. The road ahead is fraught with uncertainty and littered with land-mines. For starters, the two sides have yet to agree on the basics: the definition of or goals for denuclearization. For the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan, denuclearization simply means a North Korea without nuclear weapons capabilities, and a peace treaty that would not alter the U.S. alliance with Seoul or military presence in South Korea. For North Korea, however, denuclearization means the removal of U.S. military strategic assets from the Korean Peninsula, an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. military troops from the peninsula. North Korea has shown that denuclearization under Kim Jong Un also seems to include mutual reductions of nuclear arms, mimicking the approach between the former Cold War nuclear powers.

The failure of the last Trump-Kim summit notwithstanding, Pyongyang, with an eye on lifting sanctions, will likely aim for three broad, long-term objectives: to negotiate a peace regime, denuclearize the entire Korean Peninsula—not just North Korea—and create the conditions to eventually unite the Korean Peninsula under the North Korean flag. All three objectives share a common end state for Pyongyang: to eventually break the U.S.-South Korea alliance and expel U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.

Practical near-term goals for Pyongyang appear to be seeking sanctions relief, achieving economic prosperity and international standing, permanently halting U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, and removing U.S. strategic military assets (including aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, missile defense systems, and stealth fighters) from the Korean Peninsula and its environs while embarking on multilateral negotiations for a peace regime. While signaling that there is substantial space for continued negotiations, Kim also warned that if Washington does not fulfill its Singapore promises and lift sanctions, then Pyongyang will embark on a “new path.” Trump’s refusal in Hanoi to lift vital U.N. Security Council sanctions in exchange for Kim’s dismantling of only the Yongbyon nuclear complex appeared to be the basis for the lack of results at the second summit.

U.S. President Donald Trump attended a news conference following his second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 28, 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam. Trump and Kim abruptly cut short their two-day summit as talks broke down and the leaders failed to reach an agreement on nuclear disarmament. (Tuan Mark/Getty Images)

Bold and creative approaches could certainly lead to historic breakthroughs and perhaps even put an end to what has become an intractable problem. It is vital for any deal(s) to continue to serve the interests of the United States and South Korea and lead to stability in Northeast Asia.

Section 1 of this report examines four different models of denuclearization—complete and rapid, complete and phased, incomplete and phased, and elimination by force. It reviews the general contents of future bargains based on each side’s demands and provides a framework for calculating price tags for each bargaining chip and determining proportionate tradeoffs. Based on these models, Section 2 advises the Trump administration to negotiate for complete and phased, but concurrent denuclearization. The section also warns that Washington may eventually be forced to settle for incomplete and phased denuclearization when confronted by typical North Korean negotiating tactics, such as delays and salami-slicing tactics, and the time pressure imposed by a rapidly approaching U.S. presidential election. The section then outlines ways to divide and phase U.S. con-cessions by categorizing them into modest, medium, and high rewards on the basis of their degree of symbolism, reversibility, and strategic or political importance, as well as ways to phase the steps North Korea needs to take toward denuclearization based on the same value metrics for proportionate bargaining. Section 3 proposes ways for the United States to negotiate a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap in 2019, outlining the bargains among the three categories agreed upon at the Singapore summit—denuclearization, a new U.S.-North Korea relationship, and a peace regime. The section also suggests that it might even be possible to begin some disablement and dismantlement activities in 2020, and to speed up the process, the different phases of denuclearization could be implemented concurrently. Section 4 offers a comprehensive set of recommendations on how the United States should proceed with negotiations over the next two years, taking into account a multitude of factors and challenges it might face. Finally, the conclusion is a brief discussion on potential outcomes for summitry: success, failure, or incremental progress. It acknowledges the risks, challenges, and time involved to aim for denuclearization, but cautions against a government policy that falls short of the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

The recommended steps in this report will not be completed within Trump’s first term, because of the sophistication of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, the size of its nuclear infrastructure, and the usual circumstances that accompany negotiating with a country like North Korea. The conceptual framework and key principles offered here extend beyond a Trump administration with necessary adjustments according to the geopolitical, technical, and security situation of the time.

Read the full report.

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  1. Those sanctions have restricted profits from exports (worth nearly $3 billion in annual revenues) that are believed to fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs. See Duyeon Kim, “Summit Datebook 2: After Hanoi, Relieved but Still Curious,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 7, 2019, https://thebulletin.org/2019/03/summit-datebook-2-after-hanoi-relieved-but-still-curious/
  2. “Remarks by President Trump in Press Conference, Hanoi, Vietnam,” The White House, February 28, 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-press-conference-hanoi-vietnam/
  3. 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, http://www.kossrec.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/4.-Leif-Eric-Easley.pdf. For more on North Korean beliefs for survival, 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.
  4. “Washington warns Seoul not to move too quickly without progress from Pyongyang,” Nikkei Asian Review, November 21, 2018, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Pompeo-warns-Seoul-not-to-move-too-quickly-without-progress-from-Pyongyang
  5. 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, such as oil, in exchange for a “North Korean denuclearization milestone.” The official emphasized that exemptions confined to inter-Korean cooperation projects are better than others 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 could earn from them.
  6. “Nuclear weapons capability” in this paper means nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, facilities ( production, storage, maintenance, etc.), and delivery systems.
  7. Strategic assets can include aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, missile defense systems, and stealth fighters, among others.
  8. North Korea’s most recent articulation of this definition of denuclearization was in December 2018 through its state-run media. Pyongyang 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 North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” and how it has evolved since 1956, see Duyeon Kim, “The Panmunjom Declaration: What it wasn’t supposed to be,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1, 2018, https://thebulletin.org/2018/05/the-panmunjom-declaration-what-it-wasnt-supposed-to-be/; Cheon Seong Whun,“‘Denuclearization’: More Than Just Two Divergent Conceptions,” Small Wars Journal, 2018, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/denuclearization-more-just-two-divergent-conceptions
  9. Reuniting (or even communizing) the entire peninsula under North Korean rule has been a national objective for North Korea since its foundation. New Year’s Day addresses by North Korean leaders typically imply that this is still its goal.
  10. See the full text of Kim Jong Un, “Kim Jung Un’s 2019 New Year Address,” (January 1, 2019), https://www.ncnk.org/resources/publications/kimjongun_2019_newyearaddress.pdf/file_view
  11. For more on what “new path” might mean, see Duyeon Kim, “What North Korea wants from the next US summit,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 23, 2019, https://thebulletin.org/2019/01/what-north-korea-wants-from-the-next-us-summit/
  12. “Senior State Department Official Remarks to Traveling Press,” Manila, Philippines, February 28, 2019, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/02/289798.htm; North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s press conference, Hanoi, March 1, 2019, https://america.cgtn.com/2019/02/28/dprk-fm-ri-yong-ho-disputes-trump-reason-for-summit-collapse
  13. Author’s modification of Robert Einhorn’s three models (rapid and complete, incremental and complete, incremental and incomplete) in “Singapore and beyond: Options for denuclearizing North Korea,” Policy Brief, Brookings Institution, June 2018. Author added the fourth pathway, of military force.


  • Duyeon Kim

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