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Kim’s missing missiles may mark a turning point
Rarely does anything good come out of North Korea. But this weekend we were rewarded with an exception: During its 70th anniversary celebrations, the regime decided to hold back parading long-range missiles, or ICBMs, that could potentially deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States.
That is a big deal that should not be ignored - and a potential win for America's and South Korea's diplomatic approach toward the hermit kingdom. Although we should not overstate this development, there are important points we can take from it while considering a possible path forward that could realize major breakthroughs.
Just as in the United States, every head of state is under constant pressure to project strength, to show the leadership's base of supporters that he or she is powerful and willing to take on the country's enemies. The same applies to North Korea: Kim Jong Un surely was under pressure from top military and government officials to showcase Pyongyang's might at a time when the country is under tremendous pressure, its economy contracting at the sharpest rate in 20 years, thanks to tough economic sanctions. Nothing shows power, military muscle and defiance like a Hwasong-15, a long-range missile that could, at least in theory, hit any part of America with a nuclear weapon that could kill millions of people.
Yet, Kim showed restraint. He signaled to America and South Korea that indeed he may be more serious about denuclearization than some would credit him. Long gone are the days when Kim tested his first ICBM - on July 4, 2017, no less, in what he then called a "package of gifts" for America. In fact, just last week, Kim told a delegation of South Korean officials that he would be willing to denuclearize by the end of the Trump administration's first term, or early 2021. It signals that he wants to continue the détente that has taken hold on the Korean Peninsula and that there is hope for progress in the months to come.
In the weeks ahead, more good news could come out of North Korea. With South Korean President Moon Jae-in heading to Pyongyang for a three-day summit, the third inter-Korean summit this year, there is an opportunity to continue pushing forward along a diplomatic path. Both sides seem intent on warming ties, finding a way to end the Korean War once and for all, something both Koreas committed to doing by the end of the year.
This is where the Trump administration should seize the initiative. Before President Moon steps foot in Pyongyang, the groundwork should be laid for a possible breakthrough, with America and South Korea jointly offering the North a peace declaration that ends the Korean War, in exchange for a full accounting of Kim's nuclear warheads and missiles.
Washington or Seoul would not need the locations of these weapons just yet - Kim might perceive that as a future target list - but an accounting would go a long way to giving the world an idea of what would be needed financially and time-wise to denuclearize North Korea. Only such a step-by-step approach, where each side gives a little simultaneously, has a chance of delivering true peace on the Korean Peninsula.
If Kim were to accept such a proposal, the timing would be perfect for Kim and Moon to jointly travel to New York - where, this month, the United Nations General Assembly opens and leaders of the world annually gather - and there end the war in historic fashion, something that has been hinted at. The leaders of not only North and South Korea and America, but also China and the U.N. secretary general, could all sign the declaration, giving it a true sense of legitimacy and foundation in international law.
From that point, there would be a true pattern of how to manage relations with North Korea, in which all sides make concessions simultaneously so that no one feels as if they are losing face or being pressured to make concessions first. A logical next step would see both sides making supervised cuts in conventional arms along the Demilitarized Zone, the world's most heavily armed border, something reportedly the North might be willing to do. That would create another way to build trust while lessening a potential military threat about which both sides have good cause to worry.
There is no doubt we are a long way from true peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula. We all know there are countless examples of the Kim regimes breaking their word in past efforts at diplomacy, but we do have more reason today to be hopeful of a potential path that could see tensions drop considerably - and perhaps a full denuclearization in the future. As President Trump likes to say, "We'll see what happens."
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by former President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.