Six months ago the common wisdom was that the United States and North Korea were on a collision course to armed intervention by the US and response by the North Koreans. Today as the Kim Jung Un and President Trump summit draws near there are some who are touting President Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. How did we get here?
Some analysts believe that the North Korean change in direction is not the result of weakness, as many would have you believe. They argue that the North Koreans now perceive that they have demonstrated that they are valid members of the “nuclear club” and thus can come to a negotiating table in a position of strength. They have demonstrated nuclear weapons and ICBM technology. This capability can be redeployed in the future should an agreement fail. What is probably missing is reentry vehicle technology which is necessary to deliver a nuclear weapon. This with the construction of a new test facility can be mastered– the North Korean nuclear underground test site is collapsing.
On the negative side there is no doubt that the sanctions have hurt the North Koreans—especially since the Chinese have cooperated, somewhat in those embargoes. Given the nuclear standoff they have created there is no doubt that the North Koreans see an opportunity to greatly improve their economic situation. The question on the table is whether they will be willing to trade denuclearization for economic growth?
The North Koreans have played the fear of conflict in South Korea to improve their position vis-à-vis the US. The Olympic icebreaking followed by the recent Panmunjom north south summit with the announcement of the cessation of hostilities agreement was no doubt orchestrated to try and get the south to apply pressure, when/if needed to reach some form of agreement coming out of the upcoming meeting between Kim Jung Un and Donald Trump. The visit of President Moon of South Korea to the White House in coming weeks is no doubt focused on having a unified position going into summit.
There are also plans on the economic partial integration of the two Koreas that the South Koreans have created to increase the incentive for s for the North to agree to nuclearization. This is a two edged sword for the South Koreans. The South Koreans should talk to the Germans about the huge costs that they bore with the German unification.
Both sides have continued to move in jerks toward the historic meeting. The North has agreed to release 2 Americans being held in a labor camp so as to take that issue off of the table. The President has announced that 28,000 US forces stationed in Korea are not on the table. The North has complained of US rhetoric while promising to let experts and journalists visit the nuclear test site to verify its decommissioning.
Reaching an agreement on the denuclearization of North Korea will be a difficult negotiation. It will be difficult process to agree on the terms and their implementation. It is in this process that the Iranian nuclear deal sets a precedent. The Trump Administration will most likely add into the Korean position its stand on Iran. The Iranian agreement does not provide the example that the Trump Administration wants the North Koreans to think is in the realm of the possible. It is sure to highlight the loopholes in the Iranian deal no matter how it decides to go forward.
No one should expect a detailed agreement to come out of the upcoming summit. The best that could be hoped for is a broad agreement that:
- Codifies the denuclearization of North Korea
- Limits the development of ICBMs
- Provides for future technical negotiations with periodic reports of status to principals either individually or at subsequent summits for approval and further guidance.
- Links the relaxation of sanctions to progress on the limiting/eliminating of ICBMs and nuclear warheads.
Obviously verification protocols will be critical to the successful conclusion of this historic negotiation.
The upcoming summit is not an end in and of itself! It is a meeting to define and agree to a process that may take a year or more to conclude.