When no North Korean deal is the best deal

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President Trump knows the hard truth about high-stakes negotiations: “Sometimes you have to walk.” That’s what he did in his second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam. By walking away, Trump signaled that his administration will not follow U.S. administrations before him into signing empty deals that give North Korea too much, while requiring too few promises in return.

As a first-generation Korean-American whose mother escaped from the North to the South during the Korean War, I watch affairs on the Korean peninsula very carefully. The Kim regime continues to perpetrate gruesome crimes against the people of North Korea, to sell weapons to America’s enemies and to pose a nuclear threat to the world. These are matters that cannot be taken lightly.

{mosads}Since his inauguration, Trump has called for denuclearization as a necessary first step to easing restrictions on the Kim regime. He furthered that goal during the Hanoi summit by refusing to relieve sanctions without agreement from North Korea to dismantle not only the Yongbyon nuclear site, but other elements of its nuclear program as well. 

Walking away didn’t shut the door to future negotiations. On the contrary, it helped define a clear line beyond which the U.S. will not cross. It showed the Kim regime that we are not living in the 90’s anymore. 

Past American administrations have eased economic sanctions and provided aid in return for promises from the Kim regime to freeze their nuclear program. One agreement even offered two civilian nuclear reactors, though they were never completed. Those agreements only succeeded in giving breathing room for North Korea to continue building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. 

Trump’s strong statements about denuclearization combined with his willingness to open dialogue led me to be cautiously optimistic about the first summit between Trump and Kim in June 2018. While I remain wary, I am encouraged that the Trump administration did not fall into the trap of making a deal simply to make a deal. 

Yet, U.S. relations with North Korea are far more complex than denuclearization alone. The Kim regime is one of the worst human rights violators in the world. North Korean citizens are starved, tortured, held in gulags, and forced into slave labor. Relieving sanctions without concessions would not only give the Kim regime more freedom to build nuclear weapons, but also more flexibility to revive their failing economy while continuing to brutalize the North Korean people. 

Both U.S. and North Korean officials acknowledged they need time to regroup after the Hanoi summit. In that time, the Kim regime will have to recognize that they are the ones who must make concessions in order to move forward.

The Trump administration will need to remain strong in its demand for verifiable large-scale denuclearization before opening the door to sanctions relief. And if the time for relieving sanctions arrives, the administration should plan to tie that relief to relief for the North Korean people from the oppression they have endured for more than six decades. 

Trump showed that the U.S. has the upper hand by walking away from a bad deal in Hanoi. When Trump said, “speed is not that important to me,” he also showed he is willing to take the time needed to make a good deal. I am confident that the president will continue to use his experience in negotiations to continue moving these talks in the right direction.

Michelle Park Steel is the vice chairwoman of California’s Orange County Board of Supervisors. She is the first Korean-American elected to the Board of Supervisors. She previously served as vice chair of the State Board of Equalization. At the time, Steel was the highest-ranking Korean-American elected official in the United States.

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump Hanoi summit Kim Jong Un Michelle Park Steel North Korea White House

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