The stage is set for the big meeting that will be heard around the world. Air Force One has landed in Vietnam. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Hanoi by train through China. And the predictions are coming in at a fevered pitch. While most of Washington is either highly doubtful of any substantive breakthroughs or is preparing for a disastrous Trump giveaway, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has hopes for “meaningful results.” The truth is we won’t know what the results will be until Trump leaves the room and holds another boisterous news conference—and even then, details will likely be given to U.S. special representative Stephen Biegun and North Korean diplomat Kim Hyok-chol to haggle over in the weeks and months to come.
But as we await the results of the second Trump-Kim summit, those of us cheering for a diplomatic miracle have a responsibility to dispel some of the myths about North Korea that have been percolating in the ether. Myths, if not disproved, have a habit of turning into facts—even if they are baseless on their face and completely unmoored to history. In Washington, perception is often reality.
Myth #1: North Korea is an impossible state to deal with, so talks will inevitably fail
Not so. North Korean diplomats may represent a cultish state with a gigantic army led by a thirty-five-year-old, but the Kim dynasty has struck nuclear agreements with the United States before. Sure, all of those accords would later evaporate for a variety of reasons. The cause of those failures included clandestine North Korean enrichment efforts, implementation delays on the U.S. side, and confusion about wording, terminology, and interpretation. Obviously, the Trump administration wouldn’t be negotiating with Kim today if the nuclear issue was already solved.
But none of this should outweigh the fact that the North Koreans actually have a history of signing agreements. As the Ploughshares Fund’s Catherine Killough documents in a recently-released report, Pyongyang and Washington have signed three nuclear agreements since 1994—all of which centered on the suspension and eventual dismantlement of the North’s main Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Some of those deals were more specific than others, but all required the North Koreans to deliver real concessions on its prized nuclear program in exchange for a number of economic and diplomatic incentives from the United States and its partners. The North Koreans also have a history of offering and observing unilateral missile testing suspensions. The most notable was a nearly seven-year missile testing moratorium that delayed Pyongyang’s scientific and technical development, testing, and finalization of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.
The North Koreans are inscrutable, but they aren’t illogical or immune to a deal if it’s in their interest.
Myth #2: Signing a peace declaration would jeopardize the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
One of the likely deliverables of this week’s Trump-Kim summit is a formal declaration that the Korean War is done and over with. For the Trump administration, agreeing to an end-of-war declaration is a very low-cost way to show Pyongyang that Washington is interested in working towards a conciliatory bilateral relationship. It would also be common-sense: the Korean War has been over since the armistice was put into force in 1953. Officially declaring the conflict over is merely reiterating what everyone knows to be the case.
Yet there is grumbling from conservative corners of the U.S. foreign policy community that an end-of-war statement would be a slippery slope towards a reduction of the U.S. military presence in South Korea or perhaps even the nail in the coffin to the U.S.-ROK alliance.
The slippery slope argument, however, fails to take into account a number of realities. The first: the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the reduction of the U.S. troop presence in South Korea below 22,000 unless the president certifies that such a withdrawal is in the U.S. national security interest. While no one can predict what President Trump would do at any given moment, we can be reasonably confident that the president’s advisers would warn him about the extraordinary political blowback he would receive from both sides of the aisle if such a decision was made. If Trump walked back his Syria withdrawal, which only included 2,000 American military personnel, after experiencing pressure from his own party, are we really to believe Trump wouldn’t have second thoughts with a drawdown involving nearly 29,000 troops?
Of course, laws can change, which makes the second reason even more important: a peace declaration would have no legal weight under international law or interfere in Washington’s right to engage in the sovereign decision of which countries deserve to be labeled as U.S. allies. A peace declaration would be a non-binding, political statement of intent meant to show the North Koreans that the United States is seriously committed to a brand new, amicable relationship. Any moves towards a decreased U.S. force posture in South Korea would be a separate conversation undertaken by two long-time allies.
Myth #3: North Korea’s missile testing suspension is a nothingburger
Hardliners in Washington have long dismissed Kim Jong-un’s fifteen-month missile testing moratorium as a symbolic, low-cost, low-reward concession—low cost because Kim could just as easily restart testing anytime he wants; low-reward because it does nothing to limit Pyongyang’s bomb-fuel work.
This, however, is not necessarily an accurate narrative. According to former Los Alamos Director Siegfried Hecker (one of the few who has observed North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure first-hand), former senior intelligence official Robert Carlin, and Stanford University researcher Elliot Serbin, Kim’s testing suspension is more monumental than the usual claims from the usual the pundits. “It is our assessment,” the three experts wrote in a February report “that the abrupt end to missile testing at a time of rapid progress on several new missile systems, including ICBMs, SLBMs, and solid-fueled ballistic missiles sets back the North Korean missile program significantly.”
Perfecting an intercontinental ballistic missile capability requires testing. Pyongyang, however, hasn’t tested in over fifteen months, all but stopping the regime’s ICBM work in its tracks. This will continue to be the case for as long as the suspension is in place. A formal codification of the nuclear and missile testing moratorium would, therefore, be low-hanging fruit for Trump as he sits down for negotiations with Kim. And if Kim agrees to it, the concession would amount to a real achievement for the president—one he could brag about back home.