What if the foreign-policy elites in Washington, D.C. could admit the truth when it comes to North Korea? The fact is that there is next to nothing the Trump administration can do to rid the world of this nuclear nightmare unless Kim Jong-un’s regime is willing to deal his weapons away.
At the moment, we are nowhere near a deal to denuclearize North Korea. Just trying to even figure out where we are in talks with Pyongyang is confusing enough.
Inter-Korean détente is moving forward at a rapid pace. It should be called the Moon Miracle, since South Korea’s president has staked his entire legacy on securing peace and deserves much of the credit. But Chairman Kim still did not consider ties strong enough to make his long-awaited visit to Seoul, which was promised by the north to occur by years end.
The state of relations between America and North Korea is a mixed bag. While the north is no longer firing long-range missiles into the sky or detonating hydrogen bombs like last year, we have no firm date or location for a Trump-Kim 2.0 summit. In fact, Steve Biegun, the US Special Envoy for North Korea, has officially met with a North Korean once, when he was formally introduced to the leadership in Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo months ago.
It gets worse. Perhaps most telling of all, there has been little to no mid-level diplomatic interactions between the two sides, something critical to crafting the kinds of agreements that would create a stable relationship. This is the diplomatic dirty work that would be needed to forge a realistic path towards denuclearization. You know, the stuff that no one cares about but that makes history happen.
Thankfully, there is a path forward, but it would require the Trump administration to face facts. The good news is that the North Koreans, never too shy to tell us what they want, have been pretty clear about what they expect if they are to give up their atomic arms. The Kim regime sees denuclearization as the end goal of a full normalization of relations, spanning months but most likely years. Such a process could involve ending the Korean War once and for all, the opening of liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang (and eventually embassies), various types of conventional arms control along the Demilitarized Zone culminating in a potential freezing and slow roll back of the north’s nuclear weapons and missile arsenals.
None of this will be done overnight and will take more time. The north needs to build trust – they don’t want to end up like Iraq if they give up their nukes, their biggest fear of all. That’s not crazy, it’s International Relations 101.
However, can Washington come to grips with reality? Can the administration aceept – at least in private – that even with tough sanctions, it most likely can’t denuke the Kim regime unless it is willing to do so? Can Team Trump come to the realization that they must create an environment where North Korea feels secure enough to give up what could be the ultimate weapon?
Clearly no US president wants to be the one to concede that North Korea is a nuclear power, handing their political enemies some very real ammunition. And yet, if we are able to confront what is so clear, there may actually be a viable path forward on the Korean Peninsula that will not only ensure there is never a Second Korean War, but most important of all, never a nuclear war that sees cities like Seoul or Los Angeles turned into atomic ash.
This truth hurts. But it might just be the only way towards a lasting peace in Northeast Asia. If the Trump administration can ignore the critics 2019 could be a time of historic change in Korea. Who knows, maybe Donald Trump still comes away with the Nobel Prize.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest.