If Trump and Moon work effectively together, progress towards peace can resume

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be in Washington to meet with President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE in an attempt to restart negotiations with North Korea after the abrupt end to February’s Hanoi Summit. If Trump and Moon work effectively together, progress towards peace can resume.

Moon said he will hold “in-depth discussions” with Trump to “further progress in the Korean Peninsula peace process,” which is ultimately geared toward the “complete denuclearization of the peninsula.”

ADVERTISEMENT

South Korea’s new unification minister offered additional insight. Noting that all parties have made considerable progress from the “fire and fury” days of 2017, Kim Yeon-chul said it is important to “seize the opportunity for co-prosperity of the South and the North. We never know when such a chance will come again if we miss it.”

These statements provide important clues as to what Moon wants Trump to support, and in what order: the pursuit of peace first, further integration and normalization between the North and South, and then — at some point in the distant future, after enough trust has been mutually established — work toward denuclearization.

This step-by-step framework is one Kim Jong-un has repeatedly stated he is willing to pursue, even if his sincerity towards genuine denuclearization is very much in question. The ultimate objective is the security of the United States and the benefit of our allies in the region, and this approach would give all parties the best chance at success.

What guarantees failure, however, is to continue following the stale Washington playbook that has proved so ineffective over the past 25 years: demanding full nuclear disarmament up front.

Heading into the Hanoi Summit, all signs indicated Trump recognized the futility of this old approach. He seemed to realize diplomacy would take time and patience.

Prior to the summit, Trump frequently told the media that he was taking the long view of negotiations, saying, “I’m in no rush. There’s no testing. As long as there is no testing, I’m in no rush.” In a speech at Stanford just days before Hanoi, senior negotiator Steven Biegun noted the U.S. would not demand unilateral compliance to a long list of demands, but rather was “prepared to pursue — simultaneously and in parallel — all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore.”

Disappointingly, national security adviser John Bolton, whose hawkish views towards Pyongyang are well known, took the lead for negotiations, relegating Biegun to back-row status. And as a result, the talks failed to reach any agreement at all.

Reuters reported the prime reason for this unproductive conclusion was a list of requirements Bolton convinced Trump to present to Kim, including a demand that North Korea unilaterally surrender all its nuclear weapons directly to the United States. The list “appeared to represent Bolton’s long-held and hardline ‘Libya model’ of denuclearization that North Korea has rejected repeatedly.” Of course, it failed.

With this week’s meeting in Washington, Trump has a chance to reverse that misstep.

Following his instincts, Trump has worked effectively with Moon since early 2018, ushering in an unprecedented opportunity to bring peace to Korea. What Trump should do now is reject advice from Bolton and instead pursue the diplomatic opening he’s helped to create. Thursday’s meeting with Moon is an opportunity to regain the initiative Bolton lost in Hanoi.

At a security conference in Seoul this week, the speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly said reflexive distrust of North Korea — which often characterizes establishment Washington thinking — is a barrier to progress. “Rather than saying that the North would never forgo its nuclear program,” Moon Hee-sang said, “We need to forge a diplomatic environment in which the North cannot help but give up its nukes.” There is a path available which makes such an outcome at least plausible, and Trump can take steps along that path this week.

A good first step would be the exchange of diplomatic liaison offices between Pyongyang and Washington, establishing lines of normal communication that can be used to coordinate further progress.

Second, in exchange for Kim taking firm, concrete steps of dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility — confirmed in the presence of unfettered international inspectors — Trump and Moon could offer limited, targeted sanctions relief to economic projects related to inter-Korean development.

Such relief could include snap-back provisions should North Korea fail to live up to the terms of agreement. Yet it would also build trust between the parties and make further mutual steps towards peace possible.

Bolton’s advice is a losing proposition, and following it saddles Trump with unnecessary risk and high probability of increased tensions. The president takes almost no risk, however, by joining Moon in seeking constructive diplomacy, because no matter what may happen in the future, the security of the United States will always be guaranteed by our overwhelming nuclear and conventional military deterrent.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.