Don’t believe the Trump-haters when they trash the Singapore summit between America and North Korea, which we mark the first anniversary of today. This was a win for everyone who wants to see a stable peace on the Korean Peninsula. And the alternative remains too horrific to imagine.
Some will say the summit accomplished nothing but a vague statement of goals and principles, with nothing delivered and no schedule for future deliveries. The pundits will pontificate that Trump was duped, that he shied from going toe-to-toe with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – and that Washington has done the worst thing possible, and legitimized a state whose human rights record is surely the worst of any on the planet.
That’s just wrong. I should know: I was one of these critics around this time last year. It’s embarrassing for me to admit my mistake, but it’s the truth. I bear no love for Kim’s regime or the way his family has ruled the North Koreans. But I believe that America’s interests and those of our allies are best served by doing all we can to try and convince Kim to give up his nuclear weapons. That means both parties offering matched concessions to each other over time to build trust. If that isn’t possible, our next best goal – and it’s not my preferred outcome – should be to try and establish some sort of arms control agreement that caps Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, ensuring the threat does not get any worse.
You can call such talk appeasement, but current American policy will never work. Kim’s nuclear weapons are his only guarantee against invasion and overthrow. Expecting him to give them up for a promise of sanctions relief is a joke. It will only guarantee that Kim develops enough nuclear firepower to kill millions of people in mere minutes, right here in the American homeland.
That’s why Singapore was a victory for diplomacy and common sense. The US-NK declaration signed a year ago should be thought of as a roadmap, an essential guide to what needs to happen for Washington and Pyongyang to build trust and end decades of hostility, and for the Trump administration to see if either real denuclearization or at least arms control is possible. Seen in this long view, Singapore is the first step in a 1,000-mile journey.
There will be many bumps on that road, for sure. The terms of the Singapore Declaration won’t be easy to deliver on. It won’t be easy to transform relations by forging a relationship not based on threats. It won’t be easy to create a peace regime that denuclearizes the Korean peninsula and returns the remains of US soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Korean War.
The good news is, the hardest part is over. President Trump, to his credit, has broken the diplomatic ice, and torn asunder the silly notion that a meeting with Chairman Kim will always be a mistake. Now, we have a basis for negotiation. But where do we go from here?
The second summit in Hanoi last February ended in failure due to problems on both sides. With Michael Cohen testifying before a Congressional committee back in Washington, Trump felt boxed in politically. With Kim asking for comprehensive sanctions relief in exchange for one of his probable five nuclear production facilities, North Korea was asking too much. Now, with Kim willing to engage again, and Trump having received another ‘beautiful letter’ from his nuclear pen pal, I’d say the path is open to a third summit and a mutually beneficial agreement. The terms of that agreement, if we offer a deal like the one we offered in Hanoi, should look something like this:
- A peace declaration – not a treaty, as Democrats would never allow that to be passed in the Senate – that ends the Korean War. This boosts both Trump and Kim’s domestic standing. Both can claim they have delivered a true change in relations, and that will give them momentum for forging ahead with tougher negotiations.
- Liaison offices open in Pyongyang and Washington.
- A joint task force to excavate the battlefields of the Korean War.
- A first step toward North Korean denuclearization: whereby Kim gives up the entirety of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for sanctions relief (perhaps the suspension of two to three of the economically damaging UN Security Council motions) and the go-ahead on one to two inter-Korean economic cooperation projects.
There is, of course, one bottleneck on this long road to peace. Will America give up on its foolish multi-decade policy of demanding that North Korea abandon nuclear weapons before its receives diplomatic and economic normalization?
If the answer is no, the deal I describe will never happen. Not only that: with North Korea signaling that its patience is running out, Pyongyang could very well start testing long-range missiles by the end of the year. If that happens, 2020 could very well look like 2017. All options would be back on the table, and we would be edging along the pathway to war.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as Senior Director, Korean Studies, at the Center for the National Interest.