President Trump is prepared to offer North Korea full diplomatic relations in return for full denuclearization, Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen reported at the website axios.com. The US president “is willing to consider establishing official relations with North Korea and even eventually putting an embassy in Pyongyang,” the news site quoted US government sources, in return for denuclearization.
The trade-off of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in return for international legitimacy for the Pyongyang regime is an approach that previous US Administrations considered and rejected. But it is the only diplomatic strategy that has a chance of working. Pyongyang might accept Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement, or CVID, of its nuclear weapons stockpile in return for one thing and one thing only, and that is survivability of its regime.
The North Korean regime cannot ask the United States and its allies to guarantee its longevity, but international legitimacy is the next best thing. It would give Pyongyang standing under international law and discourage future efforts to change the regime.
Regime survival is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s dominant concern. He also wants to leave open the possibility of unification under his family dynasty. Diplomatic recognition would make this possible at least in theory.
Kim did not come to the negotiating table because of tough American talk about regime decapitation. The North Koreans have heard such threats for years and are not impressed. Nor will economic sanctions sway the Pyongyang regime. North Korea’s economy has improved markedly since Kim took power six years ago. As economist Steve Hanke wrote recently in Forbes magazine, Kim has allowed “spontaneous ‘dollarization’ and ‘privatization’” of his country’s currency and economic activity. As a result, Hanke argues, North Korea’s economy is “more resilient and in better health than the press and experts assert.”
The most important thing for the American side to grasp is that Kim Jong-un is not coming to Singapore out of weakness, “begging on its hands and knees” for the summit, as Trump adviser Rudy Giuliuni told the press last week. He is not in Singapore because he fears American attack, or because he wants an American bribe, or because the Chinese sent him there.
On the contrary: Kim believes that he now has something valuable to trade, namely, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that can strike American allies and perhaps America itself. He also presides over a stronger economy than his predecessors. Kim isn’t talking to Trump because his people are starving or because his economy is imploding. He wants to emulate Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform initiative of 1978.
Kim Jong-un can’t be bullied by threats of military attacks, and he can’t be bought by the offer to lift sanctions. He wants to be treated as an equal.
Kim wants what he and his predecessors have always wanted and will always want. That is full, internationally recognized sovereignty and security within its borders, certified by a peace treaty with the powers involved in the Korean War. That would require the establishment of diplomatic relations with the major countries not presently recognizing North Korea, notably the US, France, South Korea, and Japan, as well as security guarantees to its borders by the US and underwritten by China and Russia. Recognition of the North Korean regime by all the major powers would legitimize the Kim dynasty and keep alive the option of eventual unification of the Korean peninsula under its rule – although such an outcome is not certain, nor even likely.
President Trump’s instincts have been sounder than those of his advisers. National Security Adviser John Bolton nearly killed the negotiations by mentioning the “Libyan Option” (first give up your nuclear program and then get killed), but Trump publicly disavowed his remark. It is encouraging that Trump reportedly is willing to discuss diplomatic recognition and the opening of a US embassy in Pyongyang. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo averred April 12 that the US is not seeking regime change in North Korea, although regime change has been the foreign policy establishment’s Shibboleth for Pyongyang for decades.
If Trump comes to Singapore to bully and bribe Kim Jong-un, the summit will fail. If the US President instead is willing to trade legitimacy for a regime that has been a thorn in America’s side for the elimination of the nuclear threat, it has a chance to succeed.