Will Trump deliver on North Korea?

Will Trump deliver on North Korea?
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Many people in the foreign policy establishment are contemptuous of the ambition shown by President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE to secure a nuclear deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un when they meet for a second time in Hanoi this week. It is easy to ridicule the fondness Trump has for the despotic ruler and his assertion that there is no more North Korean nuclear threat.

But war is not an option and critics have failed to articulate an alternative policy that would be more likely to lead to a peaceful resolution of this conflict. Victory might be swift, but even without the use of any nuclear weapons, the casualties and destruction would be horrendous. North Korea would likely not collapse any time soon. The regime has shown it is able to survive even in the face of severe sanctions and military threats.


Trump was somehow convinced that Kim might be willing to give up his nuclear weapons if Kim could be persuaded that the United States would not then attack and destroy his regime. Getting there would not be easy, but it required finding a way to the negotiating table. Now that he is returning to the negotiating table with Kim, Trump should seek to nail down the agreements and mutual understandings that the two leaders made at the first summit to prevent any future breakdown in diplomacy.

For far too long, the major obstacles to starting substantive talks have been the preconditions to starting formal negotiations and the demands about what the talks would be about for each side. The United States would not come to the table if North Korea continued launching long range missiles or testing nuclear weapons. North Korea would not open talks as long as the United States and South Korea kept conducting military exercises that it felt might turn into an attack on its territory.

The American government insisted that the subject of the initial talks could only be the complete, irreversible, and verifiable elimination of the North Korean nuclear arsenal. The regime wanted to discuss an end to political hostility, normalization of relations, and the lifting of sanctions. While critics derided the Singapore summit last year as a total disaster, it should be considered a real success. As only a political understanding between top leaders could do, it overcame these serious challenges.

First, the summit brought about acceptance on both sides of the “freeze for a freeze” idea. North Korea suspended nuclear and missile tests, and the United States suspended certain military exercises. Of course, there was no excuse for Trump not consulting South Korea and for calling the exercises “war games,” but those concerns were only passing irritants.

Second, the two leaders broke the stalemate on what the negotiations were to be about. They agreed the negotiations would cover both the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the transformation of the bilateral relationship and security in Northeast Asia. At the Hanoi summit this week, Trump should seek reaffirmation of these understandings. The main goal is to codify them in a way that avoids misunderstandings about what each side has committed to do. Such misunderstandings and a lack of clarity have been the source of breakdowns in past negotiating efforts.

The United States should seek an explicit commitment from North Korea that it takes specific steps to reduce its capacity to produce missiles and warheads through the verified destruction of known facilities. American negotiators should make every effort to secure an agreement permitting the test ban treaty verification unit to participate in the process. In return, the United States should agree to some easing of sanctions focused on permitting the economic agreements reached between South Korea and North Korea to move forward. American negotiators should also agree to a declaration ending the state of war between our countries and establish interest sections, which are the precursors to embassies, in each capital.

A permanent negotiating channel should be established to flesh out the details that will be needed to move ahead on these initial steps and on additional specific steps towards a denuclearized Korea Peninsula to achieve a fundamentally altered political and security situation. At the same time, it would be useful to agree to open talks with South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia to discuss the permanent political and legal structures that would serve to guarantee a Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons, preferably through an area free of nuclear weapons.

If the Hanoi summit moves in this direction, Trump will, to the dismay of critics, get credit at home and abroad for avoiding a war and rolling back dangerous nuclear proliferation. That is all certainly a price worth paying.

Morton Halperin is a senior advisor to the Open Society Foundations. He is a former career United States government official who has served in senior foreign policy and national security positions during four administrations.