By Rensselaer Lee and William Severe*
(FPRI) — International relations along the Korean peninsula, the most dangerous place militarily on earth, appear to be moving forward in dramatic fashion. This past March, Korean leader Kim Jong-un invited President Trump to engage in direct talks, now tentatively slated for May or early June. Trump, hoping for a deal on nuclear disarmament, accepted Kim’s overture. On April 27, Kim Jong-un walked from the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone to the South Korean side, where he spent a day of talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which were mostly about peace and reconciliation rather than denuclearization.
These quasi-friendly interactions among countries that were bitter enemies just a short time ago have raised expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough leading to a final resolution of the Korean nuclear crisis. These hopes are unrealistic. The North has paid lip service to the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and has halted or suspended nuclear and missile testing, but has not committed to stages or timetables for dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Nor is it likely to do so without difficult and lengthy negotiations to build trust among other things. To be sure, according to a South Korean source, Kim recently said that he would abandon North Korea’s nukes in return for a peace treaty with the United States and a US pledge not to invade, bur spelling out the terms of the iron-clad security guarantees that Kim wants could take years. (And which would come first, the treaty or the surrender of Kim’s nukes?)
In fact, North Korea has faced an extremely inauspicious external environment for the past 70 years, and won’t immediately warm up to disarmament deals with countries that have been committed to changing the nature of the regime, such as the United States and South Korea. Disarmament requires verification—a difficult challenge because we don’t know how many usable warheads the North has or where they are stored –meaning there are plenty of potential pitfalls and cheating opportunities along the way. Moreover, Kim will come to the table with his country a nuclear success story and an economy that seems to be scraping by despite sanctions, so Trump should not overestimate his leverage over the young leader.
How should Trump handle the meeting? The first rule that the president and his hawkish advisors should follow is “do no harm.” This means, among other things, standing down from demands for all-out and immediate nuclear disarmament of the DPRK and threats of the use of force if Pyongyang doesn’t comply. If such demands are the US strategy, the meeting with Kim will be over before it even begins. Whatever cordiality was generated by the Kim-Moon talks would evaporate quickly. A wrecked opportunity for diplomacy and dialogue would raise tensions on the Korean peninsula, dimming prospects for a Korean settlement — almost certainly increasing the odds of military conflict, conceivably even nuclear war.
Kim asked for this meeting, but we can’t yet know his wish list or his negotiables. He could well lay out a set of conditions for complete disarmament — non-starters such as terminating the US-ROK military alliance and other regional defense ties. Trump and his aides should manage the meeting with Kim by emphasizing patient opportunism — using the occasion to sound out possible areas, short of full-scale denuclearization, where sides might find space to negotiate: capping ballistic missile capabilities, halting improvements in weapons design, and freezing production of fissile materials, the essential explosive ingredients of a bomb. Kim’s declared intention to suspend long-range missile launches and close North Korea’s sole active nuclear test site could well improve the atmospherics of the talks and play to Trump’s overall negotiating approach.
The purpose of early stage negotiations would be to limit Pyongyang’s ability to fight an atomic war, but such a deal would allow it to “retain a limited nuclear deterrence posture” for the time being. This would be unpopular with pro-war contingents in the Administration, but it would limit the North’s ability to further develop its nuclear capabilities and provide time for diplomacy to work. There would be potential, if unlikely, proliferation concerns in this approach, but such risks could be mitigated by intensive international monitoring — at least until the nuclear situation is somehow fully resolved.
As a step toward final nuclear disarmament, North Korea should be brought into the international community — in coordination with the Nuclear Weapons States — to advance the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. At this point, the North should focus on its overriding concerns, which most analysts agree are security and respect for its sovereignty. The Kim dynasty has traversed the long road to nuclearization in the crosshairs of the United States, South Korea and Japan. Today, the North trusts its nuclear potential more than any Western promises or guarantees. As things currently stand, North Koreans would undoubtedly like America to pack up its troops, carrier task forces, missile defenses (THAAD), nuclear umbrella, and other accoutrements of power, and simply vacate the region.
Yet a disarmament deal could become more likely if the powers can enmesh the North in frameworks of trust and collaboration, while providing appropriate incentives and prodding. Several possible scenarios can be envisioned here, like deeper economic and security cooperation between the Koreas, creation of some sort of collective security architecture for northeast Asia, and a pathway to “normalization” (however defined) of US ties. An easing of sanctions also could contribute to building a more auspicious international environment. All the while, the North should be treated as an active and responsible participant in a step by step disarmament process, not as a rogue state or international pariah. Such an evolutionary model of arms control won’t appeal to everyone — indeed it will take a long time to fruition—but alternatives, such as invading North Korea to search for hidden weapons, or “decapitate” the political system would almost certainly lead to war, with widely destructive consequences for the peninsula and for northeast Asia as a whole.
*About the authors:
Rensselaer (Rens) W. Lee III is a Senior Fellow at FPRI and is the co-author of Russia’s Far East: New Dynamics in Asia Pacific and Beyond with Artyom Lukin (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015).
William Severe held scientific positions at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Laboratories as well as policy/foreign affairs postings at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.S. Department of State.
This article was published by FPRI.
 Typical is a rose-spectacled headline in the New York Times on April 27. “Two Koreas Unite in Goal to Banish Nuclear Weapons.” So far, there have been only vague statements on denuclearization, and and no agreement on what it is or what procedures are required.
 The site may have been “self-closing,” rendered inoperable by too many tests. Katherine Lam, “North Korea’s nuclear site collapse may be the reason why Kim Jong-unceased bomb tests, scientists say, Fox News April 25, 2018 (www.foxnews.com/world/2018/04/25).