Before President Donald Trump met Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June, even the optimists were skeptical about North Korean intentions. Six weeks later, it’s hard to even find an optimist—especially after Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent meetings in Pyongyang. He described the talks as productive, while the North Koreans railed against America’s “gangster-like” mind-set.
Based on past experience, the usual practice is now for the Americans, South Koreans and Japanese to offer a menu of “goodies” for Pyongyang. But the Trump administration is leery of that trap and not much for bribery of this sort.
So, maybe a show of North Korean good faith is in order—especially since Trump already postponed bilateral U.S.-ROK military exercises and, as the president is wont to do, still describes Kim as a splendid fellow.
However, it’s debatable if Kim Jong-un is genuinely interested in reforms of the sort that will allow a deal with the United States. Some observers portray Kim as akin to Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev. Both leaders unleashed reforms that were largely economic on their respective countries, one successfully and the other not.
But Deng and Gorbachev were not part of family dynasties and willing and able to do anything, no matter how ruthless, to preserve their family regimes. Nor did most of their populations worship them.
One does hear that Kim is different because he grew up in Switzerland and likes the NBA and Dennis Rodman—and therefore desires reform. But it was also said when Yuri Andropov, the former KGB boss, became head of the USSR that he was a secret reformer since he liked Scotch whiskey and jazz music. He was not.
Kim might want the economic results of Deng-like reform, but one doubts he is willing to do what is necessary to get them. Doing so would weaken his personal control—and that might be deadly for him.
Also, while Deng was no choirboy he had survived (not unscathed) fierce Party in-fighting that ravaged China during the Cultural Revolution. He had a clear sense that the PRC was in dire straits and headed for worse. Kim’s experience is different. He’s led a pampered, well-fed life unlike most of his countrymen and simply may not see the urgency facing his country as did Deng—and even Mihail Gorbachev.
So what might North Korea do to demonstrate that this time is different?
That’s a tough one when a country has behaved this badly and for so long. Whatever it is, the show of good faith must be something jaw-dropping.
For example, Pyongyang could stop counterfeiting U.S. dollars and cigarettes, and it might cease manufacturing and selling illegal drugs. Or perhaps not kill regime enemies in public places (or private places for that matter?). Or maybe call a halt to cyber theft and extortion?
But these would be awkward. North Korea would need to stop doing things it isn’t supposed to be doing in the first place—and swears it isn’t doing.
Of course, to demonstrate its sincerity North Korea could “come clean” about the aforementioned activities—and about kidnapped Japanese or the sinking of a ROK Navy ship, Cheonan in 2010, or about Otto Warmbier’s demise. But coming clean on anything is not exactly Pyongyang’s specialty. If it did, even skeptics would take notice.
So how about destroying some missiles? Unless North Korea destroys all—or most—of them (and can somehow prove it), this won’t win over many skeptics. There’s no way to know what else they have or that is hidden away underground. And anyway, the regime can always just build more missiles.
Maybe it could deactivate or destroy a nuclear test site? Pyongyang sort of tried this in May, but nobody was much impressed. Nobody is quite sure what was destroyed and there are probably other sites. And anyway, reconstructing such sites is not difficult.
More recently, the North Koreans appear to be dismantling a rocket launch facility. Intriguing, but once again, it can be rebuilt and some observers claim Pyongyang is just giving up something it doesn’t need anymore.
So, perhaps handing over remains of U.S. servicemen missing-in-action? This shouldn’t get much mileage with the Americans. Civilized people would have handed them over already—and for free. And there are suspicions North Korea has a warehouse of MIA remains and only doles them out when they want to get something from the Americans.
How about closing down the Gulag and releasing prisoners? This is a nice move at first glance, but the regime could just imprison them elsewhere, or otherwise keep an iron grip on the “releasees” in the world’s most oppressive state.
But perhaps South Korea can take them in? This would be a worthy effort by the Moon administration and some of Moon’s advisors who tout intra-Korean fraternity and suggest it’s the Americans who keep the peninsula divided. That said, one doubts the ROK will go for this.
Regardless, it’s hard to imagine North Korea releasing Gulag inmates to anywhere (even inside North Korea) where they can “bad mouth” or otherwise undermine the regime.
But here’s one option that is doable, mostly verifiable, and even skeptics might grudgingly appreciate: North Korea can move its artillery and rockets out of range of Seoul.
The thousands of artillery pieces and missiles—many in hardened, concealed positions—that can range Seoul are effectively a nuclear weapon. And a “nuclear” weapon that can be delivered with more ease and accuracy than North Korea’s existing missile-launched nuclear weapons.
So if the Kim regime moves these weapons out of range of Seoul, then it effectively relinquishes a nuclear weapon—and one that has been a trump card for decades—hamstringing American and allied options for pressuring North Korea.
Taking Seoul out of range would put North Korea at a genuine disadvantage— and indeed, constitute a strategic concession on Pyongyang’s part.
Verifying a North Korean withdrawal of its artillery and missiles is presumably feasible given that the DMZ and nearby terrain is one of the most heavily surveilled and monitored places on earth, and has been for decades.
Of course, it’s possible to bring the artillery and missiles back into position if negotiations don’t go as Pyongyang prefers. But doing so would be a clear sign of escalation or warlike intent. And as importantly, the weaponry would be subject to interdiction (or in other words, destruction) as it is being put back into position.
Hopefully, Kim has figured out that President Trump is unlike his predecessors, and is unlikely to be strung along for very long. Also, he doesn’t have the option of “kicking the can down the road” as previous presidents have done.
If North Korean doesn’t produce—or offer up a sign of good faith—war will be a real option. So, Pyongyang had better hurry and do something jaw dropping, and hopefully Beijing will encourage them to do so.
Grant Newsham is senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He is a retired U.S. Marine Colonel and a former U.S. diplomat.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen during his visit in Beijing, China, in this undated photo released June 20, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. KCNA via REUTERS