Vietnam summit: Kim's 'done deal' coming to fruition?

Vietnam summit: Kim's 'done deal' coming to fruition?
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On New Year’s Day, seconds before Kim Jong Un gave his fireside chat-reminiscent speech — broadcast live for the first time on South Korean television this year — we heard the sonorous din of the clock striking midnight. A tad staticky with an ominous sub-tone, this aural prop seems in retrospect a portentous harbinger of showdown number two that will take place next week between President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP sues California over Newsom's vote-by-mail order MORE and Kim in Hanoi.

Trump in his Feb. 3 interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” highlighted the “very good chance” the two leaders would make a deal in Vietnam. He estimated that Kim is “tired of going through what he’s going through,” and presumably would be motivated to agree to a deal with Washington. So we will see a deal.


This deal, however, was a “done deal” from the get-go. Banking aspirations on arriving at clear, binding and mutually agreeable definitions on denuclearization, peace, concessions and other terms in the U.S.-North Korea negotiation vernacular, would have been helpful if it had been settled at the onset of negotiations. Eight months after their summit in Singapore — or even, arguably, in Panmunjom where Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in — not only seems after the fact, but affirms to Pyongyang the tenuous state of our negotiating prowess and incomplete understanding of exactly how the Kim regime operates.

In short, we are unwittingly crediting Kim as maintaining an upper hand in these nuclear negotiations.

Denuclearization as alluded to last March by South Korea’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong left out two critical words: North Korea. Lest there be any confusion, this in the coming weeks and months was later cloaked as the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — in the Panmunjom, Pyongyang and Singapore joint declarations. An unwavering position of the Kim regime that, through a fortuitous combination of Pyongyang’s art of stalling, a complementary South Korean government, and a U.S. president with an appetite to paint the summit as a foreign policy success, appears to be gradually cementing in some minds as an anodyne scenario.

Under this deal, in the name of advancing peace, the Kim regime’s nuclear weapons program and capabilities will remain largely intact. In exchange for Pyongyang’s reversible, partial giveaways — e.g., relenting its Yongbyon nuclear research facility or dismantling long-range ballistic missiles posing a threat to the U.S. homeland — Washington for its part will give confidence to the process of denuclearization through security guarantees, such as reducing U.S. troop presence in Seoul, or perhaps a declaration ending the Korean War. After all, North Korea, in the words of special representative Stephen Biegun, has to be comfortable moving into denuclearization.

For three generations, North Korea’s existential identity, do-or-die spirit and legitimacy have been tied to its nuclear weapons program. It has paid the Kim regime generous dividends as an effective coercive instrument in siphoning economic concessions and brewing security tensions in the region. A nuclear North Korea has been the justification for negotiations with the United States, South Korea, and the international nonproliferation regime. It is the linchpin to solving the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea problem” — political backwardness, stunted economic performance, human rights violations. Eliminate the nuclear threat, and slowly, the remaining clutches come undone.

North Korea absent its nuclear weapons renders the regime voiceless, sweeps the solid foundation of intimidation and bluster from underneath Kim’s feet, and reduces its relevance to U.S. strategic interests and as an impediment to veritable peace in the region. North Korea absent its nuclear weapons means no more tug-of-war with the outside world that, with every other tug, guaranteed extortionary benefits propping up the regime’s survivability. North Korea absent its nuclear weapons would lead to a redesigning of the international security landscape and herald a revision in the balance of power in Northeast Asia. North Korea absent its nuclear weapons would place us on the steady path toward lasting peace.

And where in this topography would Kim Jong Un fit?

Kim, cognizant that this scenario leaves little room for himself, already has written out a deal for the U.S. to accept. All Washington has to do is ink the deal with Pyongyang — and pay up with trust-building measures to ease Kim into giving up a paltry component of his country’s nuclear weapons program. To North Korea’s benefit, the lapse of time and thinning patience with the slow progress on the North’s denuclearization seem to have diluted the U.S. resolve and threshold for an agreement.

Washington’s days of insisting upon Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization in various evolutionary terminologies — complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID); final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD); and now, no testing of the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles — are long gone.

So, where does that leave us? Paradoxically, the confidence that we so wanted and hoped would gain Pyongyang’s trust to voluntarily commit to its complete and irreversible denuclearization likely will only embolden Kim all the more as he continues to expand and develop his nuclear weapons capabilities. All in the name of peace.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.