Trump-Kim Talks More Than Reality TV

Despite the political opportunism and obvious theater of the not-so-impromptu meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un late last month, their made-for-television mini-summit was a step in the right direction for the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In five minutes of scripted drama, Trump was greeted by Kim along the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. There, the two leaders shook hands before Kim invited Trump to become the first sitting US president to set foot on the soil of the so-called “Hermit Kingdom.” They then sat down for nearly 50 minutes of private dialogue away from the cameras, where they strove to find a way to get stalled talks over North Korean denuclearization back on track. And they seem to have started a new process that follows the more practical path of successful arms control deals of the past.

Initiated with great fanfare in Singapore in June 2018, the US-North Korean denuclearization dialogue stalled out in Hanoi in February amid accusations on the North Korean side that the US was not negotiating in good faith and US accusations that the North Koreans were not yet prepared to disarm to the level or at the speed the US deemed necessary. North Korea subsequently demanded that the US change its negotiating team, indicating that it would no longer deal with either Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or National Security Adviser John Bolton. North Korea also gave the US until the end of the year to alter its approach toward denuclearization or risk seeing the process permanently dissolved. Trump appeared to take the North Korean threats to heart, announcing afterward that he was promoting the current special adviser on North Korea, Stephen Beigun, to head the US negotiating team, apparently sidelining both Pompeo and Bolton.

While both Trump and Kim were circumspect on the substance of their behind-the-doors discussions, word began to filter out from the White House that the US might be willing to begin easing sanctions in exchange for a North Korean “freeze” of its nuclear weapons program. These rumors were quickly quashed by Bolton, who rejected the notion of the US “settling” for a North Korean nuclear “freeze.” There was one major problem with Bolton’s denunciation — he was in Mongolia when Trump met with Kim and out of the loop when it came to the substance of the Trump-Kim personal diplomacy. While Bolton accused whoever leaked the information regarding a North Korean nuclear “freeze” of trying to “box the President in,” the reality is that Bolton was boxed out. His hard-line stance on North Korean nuclear disarmament has been blamed for the collapse of the US-North Korean dialogue, which Trump has now revived. With Beigun taking the reins of the denuclearization talks, it appears that the US position regarding the linkage between denuclearization and the lifting of sanctions is softening.

The Arms Control Logic of a Freeze

Bolton’s opposition to the notion of a so-called freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program fails to consider the inherent arms control logic of a freeze. An essential element of any meaningful arms control process involves establishing a baseline understanding of what is being captured within the agreement. This baseline is derived from a declaration provided by the inspected party that is subsequently verified by the inspecting party. This was true during the US-Soviet Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, where there was a 60-day baseline inspection period in which every inspection site and all treaty-limited items were inventoried prior to their being disposed of in accordance with treaty requirements. It was also the case with the United Nations disarmament of Iraq in the 1990s, where Iraqi declarations regarding stocks of proscribed weapons were verified by inspectors prior to their being eliminated. The Iran nuclear agreement contains restrictions on the numbers and types of centrifuges Iran can operate, and similar baseline inspections were required to verify this information. Concurrent with these baseline inspection activities was a freeze on the manufacture of any new items covered by the agreement. Verifying this freeze involved inspectors monitoring the output of the factories involved in the production of these items. In the case of the INF Treaty, inspectors monitored missile factories in both the Soviet Union and the US. In Iraq, UN inspectors monitored all “dual use” facilities (i.e., those capable of making both permitted and proscribed items). In Iran, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency monitor factories involved in centrifuge production and assembly.

Inherent in any notion of an arms control agreement that starts with a freeze is a verification process that determines precisely what is being frozen. One of the criticisms leveled at the approach taken by Trump toward the denuclearization of North Korea was, and is, the absence of any semblance of process for implementing the desired outcome. But process requires a framework inclusive of a start point and an endgame. Contrary to the skepticism exhibited by many critics of the Trump approach toward dealing with North Korea, which is founded in a belief that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, there is an alternative approach. There is good reason to take seriously North Korea’s willingness to engage in a process that leads to its verifiable denuclearization. North Korea has indicated that this is the endgame it envisioned when it began to engage with the US in early 2018. The problem with the approach taken by Trump and Kim toward denuclearization hasn’t been the inability to define a common understanding of the desired outcome, but instead, the stumbling block was over how to initiate the processes that could lead to denuclearization. This was because the US position had insisted that North Korea disarm its nuclear weapons before receiving any of the promised economic incentives for doing so.

Not only is that US position a nonstarter politically with North Korea, but there are practical pitfalls that make the all-or-nothing stance that previously defined the US position vis-à-vis North Korean nuclear disarmament impossible to implement. Most arms control agreements provide for an element of reciprocity built around the notion that both sides will achieve a mutually beneficial outcome, either from parallel reductions in weaponry that lead to stability and increased security on both sides (as in the INF Treaty) or where a reduction in capacity on the part of one party leads to an improvement in their economic and diplomatic position. With Iraq in the 1990s, compliance with its obligation to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs would ostensibly lead to the lifting of economic sanctions linked to that disarmament; the Iranian nuclear deal exchanged restrictions on the scope and scale of Iran’s nuclear program for the lifting of economic sanctions and improved trade opportunities. Regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons, there would need to be both a security and economic aspect to whatever deal was structured that led to its denuclearization.

However, following this traditional arms control path with North Korea is not without obstacles. The US track record on abiding by its commitments regarding recent arms control processes is not a good one — it has withdrawn from the INF Treaty citing spurious claims of Russian noncompliance, it used the UN weapons inspection process in Iraq as a front to facilitate regime change, and it withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal even though Iran had repeatedly been certified as being in full compliance.

Critics of the Trump administration’s approach to dealing with North Korea speak of the need for evidence of North Korea’s intent before the US proceeds. The fact of the matter is, however, that the US must also prove to North Korea that it is a negotiating partner that can be trusted. Hence the critical importance of a freeze. By agreeing to a freeze, North Korea will begin the process of engagement with the US on critical issues of substance, such as defining a baseline of nuclear activity to be captured by any denuclearization agreement, as well as the processes of verification that would be required to confirm this baseline and monitor its continued viability. North Korea has historically been reluctant to allow on-site inspections. A nuclear freeze would by necessity require an inspection-based verification process that would serve to get both sides accustomed to the modalities and procedures that would have to be followed for any larger denuclearization effort. Moreover, it would also allow for the complexities associated with a multilateral inspection regime, incorporating experts from not only the US, but also Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and the International Atomic Energy Agency. To try and rapidly implement such a complex process across the full spectrum of North Korean nuclear activity would be a recipe for disaster. However, the limited scope of verifying a nuclear weapons freeze would allow the building blocks of future on-site inspections to be assembled carefully and in a manner that meets the needs of all parties.

Given the dearth of information about the substance of US-North Korean denuclearization talks, there is a plethora of speculation about what the future holds. But history serves as an effective guide for ascertaining how events may unfold. Therefore, there is every reason to be optimistic about the prospects of US-North Korean disarmament dialogue. While a nuclear freeze may, as many critics have noted, serve to grant recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, such recognition is a prerequisite for any serious effort to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. Far from being a setback, a nuclear freeze represents the best opportunity for realistically bringing denuclearization talks to fruition.

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