On March 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration was undergoing a comprehensive policy review on North Korea, the terminally angry and paranoid, VX-loving state that has been a problem for U.S. presidents since the first days of the Korean War. K.T. McFarland, the former Reagan administration official and Fox News personality who is heading up the project, told her colleagues to dive deep on the issue and include “ideas that one official described as well outside the mainstream.”
As my friend and colleague, Harry Kazianis, wrote more than a week ago: one of the options that the Trump administration is reportedly reviewing—regime change through the use of military force—“could be an unmitigated disaster” resulting in regional devastation, enormous civilian casualties and incredible cost to the U.S. Treasury once Kim’s regime is out and a replacement is in. But what about the diplomatic options that will be presented as part of the policy package delivered to the National Security Council? Could some forum for negotiations succeed in at least de-escalating the current security climate in Northeast Asia? And if so, what kind of deals could the United States make with the Kim regime that would be enticing enough for Kim Jong-un to consider taking?
First things first: one option that the Wall Street Journal reported was under consideration—a unilateral declaration of North Korea as a member of the nuclear club should be off the table. Such recognition of the North’s nuclear status is the holy grail for the regime in Pyongyang, something that three generations of the Kim dynasty have been obsessing over for decades. It’s the type of concession to the North that would be such a game-changer that the United States, South Korea and Japan would need something huge from Kim in return. Pyongyang has over the last twenty-five years demonstrated such aversion towards striking a fair-minded grand bargain with the United States on its nuclear program. So we shouldn’t bank on the assumption that Kim would even be willing to provide those kinds of tasty carrots—even if it meant a formal induction into the elite nuclear club.
The United States, however, does have other diplomatic choices on the menu that might provide enough momentum to bring Washington, DC and Pyongyang closer to an understanding. Although President Donald Trump is inherently predisposed to striking a dramatic deal, this is unlikely to be possible with a North Korean government that is so attached to its nuclear identity that it would rather let about a million of its people starve to death than stop its nuclear rewatch and development. A series of one-for-one deals would be the more palpable option for both Washington and Pyongyang. That structure would not only provide U.S. officials doing the negotiating with more time to deal with the domestic political opposition to negotiations, but it would give them a mechanism that would allow the historical adversaries to take each other’s temperature and gauge one another’s intentions.
The opportunities for progress are there, if only U.S. and North Korean officials are able to knuckle down and get to work. Pyongyang, for instance, would like the United States and South Korea to stop the annual, large-scale Foal Eagle military drills that the Kim regime has long described as a yearly rehearsal for a full invasion of the North (those exercises are currently happening). The United States, in turn, wants North Korea to stop conducting the kinds of ballistic missile tests that it saw this month—military provocations that cause intense trepidation in South Korea and Japan and immense concern that Kim is getting closer to his goal of threatening America’s west coast with a nuclear-tipped ICMB. This arrangement was recently broached publicly by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi as a way “to flash the red light and apply the brakes” on two trains that are steaming full speed ahead towards each other. At the very least, the Trump administration should explore the possibility of halting the annual military drill because there aren’t many better ideas currently out there in the diplomatic ether.
A cap-for-a-cap agreement may be the logical opening bid out of this deadlock. In exchange for a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests from the North, the United States and South Korea would suspend the Foal Eagle exercise that Pyongyang has often cited as the main reason for why it needs to maintain its missile development. While a cancellation of the joint military drills will be categorized by many national-security hawks in the Beltway as a baseless capitulation to a dictator and an abandonment of a critical ally, stopping Foal Eagle wouldn’t stop Washington and Seoul from continuing their defense and intelligence relationships.
If such an arrangement could be struck, the next stage would be to institutionalize it into a formal moratorium along the lines of the Agreed Framework, which is the only agreement with Pyongyang that had worked well enough for a decent period of time. If, for instance, North Korea signed on the dotted line, kept its missile and nuke suspension in place over the long term, and agreed to readmit IAEA inspectors into its uranium and plutonium facilities (the IAEA hasn’t had eyes on the North’s program since the six-party talks collapsed in 2009), the United States could pledge to suspend certain unilateral and third-party sanctions on Pyongyang as long as nuclear monitors were granted freedom of movement across the country and access to all the information that the agency requests. A relaxation of some U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korean exports of natural resources or a lifting of restrictions on North Korean diplomats could also be on the table if Pyongyang continued to abide by the moratorium and work constructively with the IAEA and if it agreed to cease the export of any military equipment, antiaircraft systems and ballistic missile technology without express approval from the Security Council on a case-by-case basis (any North Korean request could be blocked due to the U.S. veto power).
Unfortunately for the human-rights community, it’s unlikely that the United States and its allies would be able to press North Korea to stop treating its people horribly, to shut down its prison camps and to reform its political and social system. Demands such as these, while more than reasonable in the West, would be construed by Kim as a sneaky and less forceful way of promoting regime change in North Korea. What the Trump administration could do, however, is authorize sidebar talks on issues that would at least keep human rights on the agenda and would be easier for North Korean officials to swallow—the Japanese abduction issue and UN supervision of humanitarian supplies on North Korean soil could be two agenda items. This won’t be good enough for organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but it would at least open North Korea up to some degree of outside monitoring.
Currently, all of this seems fanciful. Pyongyang continues to fire ballistic missiles into the East Sea about as often as it threatens Washington and Seoul with nuclear holocaust. The assassination of Kim Jong-nam in a crowded airport in Kuala Lumpur via one of the most toxic chemical weapons on the planet has limited any space for diplomacy that may have been available before his death. Following the attack, Malaysian police discovered that VX was used to kill Kim Jong-nam and the State Department scuttled a conference between former U.S. officials and current North Korean officials.
Fortunately, the Trump administration’s policy review on North Korea suggests that diplomacy will be one recommendation to consider. President Trump needs to take that recommendation with the seriousness it deserves. If he truly believes he’s a negotiator of unprecedented talent, striking an agreement with Kim would go a long way in convincing people that he has really mastered the art of diplomacy.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
Image: Pyongyang; sunset over the Taedong River. Flickr/Creative Commons/Uri Tours