It is tempting to blame North Korea for failed nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang has certainly been a dubious, cheating counter-party in the past, most recently over the “Leap Day Deal.” It is also true that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered President Donald Trump a lopsided, heavily North Korea-balanced deal—full sanctions relief in exchange for closing one aging nuclear facility—when they met for a second time in February. Trump was right to walk away from the “bad deal” that Kim Jong-un presented to him at the Hanoi summit.
But it should be noted that the United States has also offered lopsided deals during negotiations. In the run-up to the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last year, Trump administration officials kept insisting that they would only accept the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) of the North, and that this was too happen speedily. This insistence continued into the fall of 2018, which is when U.S. officials went to Pyongyang to negotiate. CVID is an enormous demand, effectively asking for unilateral disarmament after the North spent decades developing the deadly weapons. In exchange the United States offered vagaries about a peace treaty or modernization, but it did not offer anything close to the value of the North’s nukes.
North Korea is much-loathed state. Its neighborhood is hostile. The United States, South Korea, and Japan would like it to collapse, and vastly outweigh it demographically, economically, and militarily. China is at best a “frenemy.” In such an environment, nuclear weapons are extremely valuable. They insure that none of the North’s many enemies will pursue regime change for fear of Northern nuclear retaliation.
Therefore, if the United States really wants to deal with North Korea, then it must offer something that approaches the tremendous value of nukes to the Northern leadership. So far, the United States has not even come close. This has long undergirded my skepticism about the talks. If the United States were really serious, then it would offer something serious. Instead, it keeps pounding the table for unilateral disarmament—and not getting it.
Any meaningful deal between two negotiating parties entails both sides surrendering something of value. What might the United States offer? And which painful concession would Trump be willing to expend political capital defending in the United States against the inevitable hawkish backlash that he is appeasing a brutal tyrant? This strikes me as the core of the problem on the U.S. side. Trump’s reputation, party, and administration are hawkish. Yet to clinch a deal, Trump will have to act the dove, giving away a lot—like U.S. airpower in South Korea or an enormous aid program. A swap like that is precisely what Trump criticized President Barack Obama for doing in the Iran deal. Trump’s tough-guy approach to international negotiation demands that he bring home unilateral concessions from opponents intimidated by American power. But of course, being able to blunt that intimidation is exactly why the North built these weapons to begin with. So, if Trump offers nothing, then he will get nothing.
I see two questions going forward in developing a U.S. concession which might genuinely move Kim to some denuclearization. (The North will never fully denuclearize; if that is our goal, then the process will fail. But some denuclearization is probably possible.)
First, is the status quo better than giving up a serious concession? Conventional deterrence with North Korea has been stable for decades. The North is not suicidal or apocalyptic; it is not ISIS. Nuclear deterrence on the peninsula can likely be stable, too. Pyongyang will not use its nuclear weapons to preemptively or offensively attack the United States. We can learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, and that might better than the huge-scale concessions, like a reduction in the South Korean military or U.S. forces in South Korea, of the sort the North will demand.
Second, if we are to deal, then what is the smallest possible big concession that we can offer? The North would almost certainly prefer tangible, strategic concessions—such as, in descending order, the end of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the removal of U.S. forces from Korea, the end of U.S. intelligence sharing with the South, the closure of U.S. bases in the South, the removal of U.S. air and/or naval power from the peninsula (pulled back to Okinawa or Guam perhaps), the further shrinkage of already small U.S. ground power in the South, a real peace treaty requiring a U.S. drawdown, and so on. All of these would be a major concession from the United States with large political ramifications throughout East Asia. For this reason, the Trump administration has been unwilling to raise such notions. But this is the scale the North Koreans are likely thinking of.
There is, possibly, an alternative—money. Physical concessions are all but irretrievable and so should be seen a major give-away. If we give up U.S. bases in South Korea, for example, in exchange for a huge chunk of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, we will likely never return. Consider how difficult it has been for the United States to get back into the Philippines after its departure in the 1980s, in order to push back on Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea. This sort of thing will happen in Korea too if we leave.
But North Korea is also very poor and constantly in need of dollars—if only so that its corrupt elites can party on. Maybe we can simply bribe them, as David Petraeus did in Anbar province during the Iraq war. Trump’s offer at Singapore of helping North Korea modernize was in this payoff vein. But the North is very wary of the political impact of major economic reform such as foreigners owning property in North Korea and moving around the country freely; North Koreans demanding property and commercial law and courts; a gusher of outside information revealing the backwardness of the North and the ridiculousness of its personality cult; and so on.
What the North Korean elite really wants is the money from modernization without the modernization. It wants a bribe. This is how it constantly interacts with the world—always demanding pay-offs. It had the temerity, for example, to charge the United States for the dying Otto Warmbier’s health-care costs.
So, money would be a big concession—the North would leap at millions or (more likely) billions of untethered U.S. dollars. But it does avoid the even more painful strategic loss of diminishing the alliance to achieve denuclearization.
I have floated this idea in South Korea before United States, Western, and South Korean audiences for more than a year now. It has almost always received badly. Objections include: paying tyrants for being tyrants; fueling the neronian lifestyle of the Kim court; propping up the regime; laundering illicit North Korean monies with all this new, legal money from the United States, etc.
All of these objections are true. It would be ugly. And this approach is similar to the Iran deal—where we unfreezed Iranian assets in exchange for compliance—which Republicans have long criticized.
But my rejoinder is always the same: what are the better realistic alternatives? Pyongyang will not give up its weapons programs easily, simply because the United States keeps demanding that ever more hysterically. It wants a big payoff. I would much prefer the payoff to be something liquid and replaceable, like cash. The United States, South Korea, and Japan are wealthy. We can replace the money given. Surrendering U.S. strategic assets in the region would be much harder to reconstitute later, if at all.
So sure, it is a bribe. And the North will likely try to cheat by making more weapons to then offer for more bribes. That obviously must be built into any cash-for-nukes deal and would constitute a deal-breaker. I do not see a better choice if we want a serious deal.
In my mind, the status quo is superior to surrendering U.S. regional, material assets. So, we should not make that swap. But money is comparatively easy and cheap for the allies, and we know the North wants it. Trading money for nukes might be better than the status quo. At least it is an option worth investigating.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.