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A deal for Trump: Take North Korea’s offer and build upon it

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President Trump should have accepted the North Korean offer in Hanoi, details of which emerged after the summit’s conclusion.

Opinions differ, and certainly dismantling the aging facilities at Yongbyon would not have addressed the totality of North Korean nuclear facilities, nor would it have included the surrender of any actual fissile material or limited the fearsome new generation of missiles. But whether it is aging, Yongbyon remains the only plutonium production site North Korea has, and plutonium has been the major part of North Korea’s stockpile of fissile material.  

{mosads}Moreover, dismantling Yongbyon also would have included, according to North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, destroying a facility for highly enriched uranium, in front of U.S. technicians. There are, most likely, other such sites in North Korea, but this still would be a major development, especially since North Korea has denied in the past it even had such a program.    

President Trump and his team apparently decided that the North Korean demand for substantial sanctions relief was too high a price. But sanctions — even the United Nations-imposed sanctions, as the North Koreans well know — can be reimposed, especially if the North Koreans balk at further denuclearization.  

Much has been made of the so-called problem of what is meant by denuclearization when, in fact, this issue has to do with how the U.S. would reciprocate. But whatever ultimately is set as the “compensating measures,” to use the North Korean term, the North Koreans fully know that they are being asked to dismantle all their nuclear facilities and abandon all their fissile material. Since dismantling the two-square-mile complex at Yongbyon would be far short of that, in accepting the North Korean offer, the United States could certainly lay down that marker.    

President Trump seems to have been persuaded by his advisers that sanctions are costing the North Koreans “billions of dollars,” and that to relax those sanctions could lead to the North Koreans effectively using a new flow of funds to rebuild or replace Yongbyon.

One has to wonder, however, if this argument represents the longstanding inability of the president to grasp the concept that a volume of trade (in this case, created because of the lifting of sanctions) does not necessarily translate into spendable “billions of dollars.”

{mossecondads}No question, a partial deal to dismantle Yongbyon does have the disadvantage of looking like previous agreements that were step-by-step in nature, rather than looking like the president’s showmanship preference for a “grand bargain.” But dismantling a major facility under the watchful eyes of U.S. and perhaps other international technicians would represent a sign that the denuclearization of North Korea is indeed under way, and not just a marketing ploy.

For those around the president who fear that it would appear too much like previous efforts, that would depend on what comes next.

Since President Trump seems to be more committed to summits with Kim Jong Un than with NATO allies, one can imagine future meetings in which the president tells Kim that he is pleased with developments in Yongbyon but now wants to move on to Site X. Kim may deny that Site X exists but, being an insistent sort of person, Trump should be able to make clear to his friend that indeed it exists and must be eliminated in accordance with North Korea’s broad commitment to denuclearization. If Kim continues to balk, the president could sadly inform him of the need to reimpose sanctions, or reinstitute joint military exercises with South Korea that Trump suspended unilaterally over his concern about their expense. For his part, Kim may threaten more missile and nuclear tests or the rebuilding of Yongbyon, but more likely the denuclearization process would continue.

For those of us who worried that the president would make too many concessions and ultimately, perhaps, even giving the Statue of Liberty to North Korea, President Trump seems to have been on good behavior in Hanoi, and most importantly not overly anxious for a deal. But one has to wonder why he backed away from anything at all, even elements that seemed to be previously agreed upon, such as a feel-good, end-of-war declaration and the establishment of diplomatic liaison offices (which, in describing the offer as “welcomable,” the North Koreans appeared to be declining in ever-so-polite terms).

The president hinted in a subsequent tweetstorm that it was all the fault of his ex-personal lawyer Michael Cohen, although that was not particularly persuasive. More likely, the president’s team of advisers convinced him that anything short of North Korea stripping to its collective underwear and surrendering was not acceptable because it would appear to look too much like past efforts.

President Trump’s North Korea policy has intrigued the world and shown that he has some focus and that, perhaps, his deal-making reputation has some applicability to diplomacy. Yet, Trump should have a close look at the North Koreans’ offer and tell his advisers to stop squabbling with each other and start planning for next steps, based on accepting the offer and building on it.   

Christopher Hill was a U.S. diplomat in South Korea from 1983 to 1985, then returned as U.S. ambassador in 2004-2005. He became the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 2006 and was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-2008. In 1995 he helped to negotiate the Dayton Accords, ending the war in Bosnia, and served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, 2009-2010. He is now a professor of diplomacy and chief adviser to the chancellor for global engagement at the University of Denver.

Tags Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Donald Trump Government of North Korea Kim Jong Un Michael Cohen North Korea North Korea–United States Hanoi Summit

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