North Korea and the US remain at a dangerous crossroads. An illustration of nuclear missiles lined up with the North Korean flag. Photo: iStock
North Korea and the US remain at a dangerous crossroads. An illustration of nuclear missiles lined up with the North Korean flag. Photo: iStock

Since the historic meeting between the Korean leaders riveted the world, there has been much debate about North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s peace overtures. Policymakers have fielded questions ranging from the precise definition of “denuclearisation” to whether North Korea’s announcement that it will halt nuclear and missile testing is indeed a concession or just a symbolic gesture to avoid giving up its weapons program. There has been, however, far less talk about an equally, if not more important question: Can the world live with a nuclear North Korea and still have peace?

Despite offering a testing moratorium and promising a no-first-use policy, Kim is unlikely to surrender a hard-won nuclear arsenal that guarantees his regime’s survival. This has been North Korea’s greatest fear since its founding in 1948 – something that drove its people into starvation in the 1990s and propelled it into a dangerous confrontation with the United States.

While the fear of outside powers attempting to undermine his regime drove Kim to accelerate his weapons program, what perhaps reinforced the imperative that he must race toward the nuclear red line – that the US will not tolerate a nuclear missile capable of hitting its soil –  was President Donald Trump’s unpredictability.

Trump’s unpredictableness effectively led North Korea to question its long-held belief that the US will not risk its alliance with South Korea and Japan, and attack the North. The North Korean threat of an artillery and missile barrage of Seoul and Tokyo had become such a useful deterrent against an American intervention that both Kim’s father and grandfather fully exploited this advantage to buy time and build their weapons program.

This non-nuclear deterrence, however, was completely lost on Trump. During his presidential campaign, Trump endorsed the idea that both South Korea and Japan should develop nuclear weapons to protect themselves from North Korea instead of always turning to the US or help.

“If we are attacked, [Japan] doesn’t  have to do anything. If they’re attacked, we have to go out with full force… that’s a real problem,” Trump told The New York Times in March 2016.

In fact, Trump remained somewhat sanguine about the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs when it only threatened South Korea and Japan. It wasn’t until North Korea announced in January 2017 that it had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the American mainland that Trump began to change his tune.

After the situation reached a crisis level earlier this year, tensions have now temporarily subsided as North Korea ceased nuclear and missile tests in recent months. The US also walked back a threat of a preventive strike against North Korea as it stood sharply at odds with South Korean interests.

At this point, having demonstrated its nuclear and missile capabilities, North Korea may well have achieved regime survival. In North Korea’s calculus, if the US isn’t deterred by the thought of endangering its allies, then it certainly will be by a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Trump must recognize that North Korea’s real strategy is to decouple the US from its South Korean alliance, and alter the peninsular balance of power in its favor

More importantly, Trump must recognize that North Korea’s real strategy is to decouple the US from its South Korean alliance, and alter the peninsular balance of power in its favor. In this respect, Trump must not miss the forest for the trees. As he prepares to meet Kim, Trump must resist the urge to believe that he can persuade Kim to fully give up his weapons program. He should go into the meeting with the expectation that he can negotiate an agreement that sets up a denuclearization mechanism, but falls short of immediate and complete denuclearization.

If Trump fails to look beyond his fixation of a near-term complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program, and decides that anything less will necessitate preventive military action, then America’s long-standing deterrence mechanism created with South Korea and Japan will collapse right there and then.

At the same time, Trump should not yield an agreement that withdraws American troops from the region – something Trump has reportedly considered doing – or even shorten US-South Korea joint military exercises in exchange for denuclearization trifles.

Not only will such an accord dramatically shift the military balance in the region, it will also severely weaken the US-ROK defense alliance. A porous defense will no doubt embolden Kim and impede South Korea’s ability to respond in the event of North Korean aggression.

Rather than presenting an ultimatum to North Korea, demanding the outright surrender of its weapons program, Trump’s top priority at the upcoming summit should be to de-escalate tensions, and reduce risks of miscalculation or misinterpretation that may otherwise lead to conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

As with the Xi-Trump Sunnylands summit last April, Trump and Kim must use this opportunity to feel each other out before putting pen to paper.

Keeping in mind these priorities, Trump must make it clear to Kim that a longer-term nuclear disarmament process will involve subsequent meetings after this initial summit. This will allow both sides to gauge each other’s interest and commitment, and set the groundwork for eventual denuclearization, even if Kim remains circumspect in acknowledging this long-term goal.

As has been required in the past, North Korea will have to submit to a strict set of checks that includes nuclear monitoring, inspection, and verification in exchange for food and economic aid – the most likely concessions that it will ask for as Kim shifts his emphasis towards the economic leg of his Byungjin Policy.

While many will say that this is a recycled failed policy, given that North Korea has reneged on all such past agreements, there is ample reason for the US to push forward this strategy.

For one, North Korea is now already a de facto nuclear-armed state. While ceasing testing and dismantling a testing facility will not upend North Korea’s weapons program, it will slow down the research and development of long-range missile reentry and guidance systems – key elements needed for an ICBM; without testing, North Korea cannot improve its terminal guidance systems and nuclear warhead technologies to threaten the US.

Second, the stakes are much higher now than during previous negotiations. Now that North Korea has a substantial nuclear and missile arsenal, it’s bargaining power is greater, and the consequences of failure will be much costlier.

Against this backdrop, the notion that policy must remain consistent is confounding, since it disregards changing geopolitical realities. Trump must reject the narrative that is being pushed by those around him – that the US will lose its credibility if it departs from its decades-long policy and recognizes North Korea as a de facto nuclear power. What will truly impugn and destroy American credibility is if the US fails to protect its Asian allies in the pursuit of its own interests.

As Trump gets ready to meet Kim, it would do him much good to heed the advice of Robert Gallucci, the chief US negotiator for the 1994 Agreed Framework nuclear deal with North Korea. Gallucci said that when it comes to dealing with North Korea, it is not about whether Pyongyang will cheat or not, but rather what Washington can get out of an agreement even when it knows Pyongyang will cheat.

And with Trump announcing on Tuesday that the U.S. will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Kim will find it all the more necessary to be chary of the US. What matters now is not whether the US will engage with North Korea, but how.

The US must first of all, at least acknowledge North Korea for what it is – a nuclear-armed state. There is no point in preventing North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons when it already has nuclear weapons. Secondly, Washington must shift its focus to more important goals such as preventing Pyongyang from further proliferating its nuclear arsenals and maintaining the balance of power in East Asia.

If the US wants to contribute to this balance of power and put North Korea on the path to denuclearize, it must value its alliance with South Korea and Japan. Only then can the US bolster its strategy of diplomacy and deterrence. By preserving the peace on the Korean Peninsula, the US will continue to stay relevant in East Asia for many years to come.

Tenzin Topden

Tenzin Topden is a program assistant at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

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