When it comes to North Korea — distrust, but verify

When it comes to North Korea — distrust, but verify
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At the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, President Ronald Reagan first uttered these words publicly, “doveryai, no proveryai”, a Russian proverb meaning “trust but verify.” At the suggestion of Soviet experts, Reagan utilized Russian proverbs to emphasize key verification components of the treaty.

Twenty-six years later, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIraq is not yet lost, but if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be Obama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide MORE adopted a somewhat different approach to negotiations with Iran, operating from a “distrust, but verify” position. To deliver this message, Obama selected then-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to lead negotiations with the Iranians. Burns just released a new memoir, The Back Channel, which provides one of the first in-depth, first-person accounts of the painstaking Iran nuclear negotiations.

Burn’s memoir paints a markedly different approach when it comes to the Donald Trump Administration’s negotiation process with the North Korean regime than either the Reagan or Obama strategies. The current departure from previous diplomatic norms, including the go-it-alone strategy President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE has pursued thus far, is one of the many reasons negotiations have failed to produce any tangible success to date.


When the final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran was announced in July of 2015, it included a permanent commitment made by the Iranians to cease all nuclear weapon development, removed 98 percent of the country’s stockpile of enriched material, and shuttered nearly two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges. Additionally, the agreement provided for the most stringent verification measures ever leveled on another country, consisting of 24/7 surveillance arrangements at each of Iran’s nuclear sites.

The Obama Administration achieved all of this in return for modest sanctions relief for Iran which included accessing unfrozen oil revenues. If President Trump were somehow able to bring home a similar agreement with the North Koreans, he would declare himself the best negotiator that has ever graced the Oval Office.

Kim Jong Un was recently in Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocratic front-runners defend their age during debate Candidates unleash on Trump over Syria move, say he's weakening US Erdoğan says he will never declare Syria ceasefire: Turkish media MORE, his first visit as head of state in an attempt to rekindle relationships going back generations with grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and previous Soviet leaders. While Kim may seek for Russia to ease some of the pain felt by current sanctions on his regime, the Trump Administration must not let up on pressing for additional negotiations.

When it comes to North Korea, any deal similar to the JCPOA is still a long way off despite the visit this month by the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, who is desperate to revive the stalled nuclear treaty talks. To date, we have had two summits with North Korea that have failed to produce any tangible reduction in the nuclear threat posed by the regime. Additionally with the apparent testing of a new type of tactical missile by the Kim Regime, we are entering a new, more dangerous phase with our bilateral relations.

At this critical impasse, the Trump Administration must make several strategic changes to its negotiating posture including greater collaboration with our allies, shifting away from our current praise of the regime, actually talking about key verification mechanisms (as in the case of the JCPOA) and not sidelining our own specialists in the field.


When we engaged with the Soviets, it was in full partnership with our NATO allies. Similarly, every successful effort with Iran was made with the final blessing of the P5+1 group. When the most recent talks in Hanoi broke down, our key allies, including South Korea, found out after the fact and were embarrassingly caught off guard. This is no doubt part of a broader pattern of Trump rejecting multilateral efforts including his attacks on NATO, our withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and spearheading cuts to the U.N.’s peacekeeping budget. The Trump Administration must change course from this unilateral posture and engage allies and regional partners in a more significant way going forward for any deal to be possible.

It is also worth noting that at no point during Regan’s dealings with the USSR or Obama’s negotiations with the Iranians did we ease our condemnation of human rights abuses in those countries, nor praise their dictatorial regimes. Trump lavished praise on the North Korean dictator, going so far as to give Kim Jong Un a pass when it came to the death of Otto Warmbier. This is both wrong and shameful.

During the most recent meeting with South Korean President Moon, President Trump indicated that “certain things” were agreed to with Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnBeware the 34th month of Trump's presidency The Trump doctrine: Principled realism or endemic confusion? Stockholm breakdown reflects North Korea's failure to compromise MORE but provided scant details or explanations. This follows Secretary Pompeo’s open hostility towards a reporter last year when asked about verification mechanisms with the North Korean regime. It’s important to point out that then-Congressman Pompeo was one of the harshest critics of the Iran deal when in Congress. For all their bluster, Trump and Pompeo would be well served to pursue the kind of arms control verification established by the JCPOA in their negotiations with North Korea.

In The Back Channel, Ambassador Burns sums up the negotiations with Iran, saying “the politics in Tehran and Washington were corrosive, offering little room for maneuver or incentive for risk-taking. The nuclear problem itself was maddeningly complicated and opaque. There was little reason to think that we could overcome any of those obstacles, let alone all of them.” There was no reason to trust the Iranians throughout the nuclear talks, but they have continued to abide by the JCPOA, despite the United States pulling back from the agreement.

To be sure, President Trump’s rhetoric with regard to North Korea was much worse at the beginning of his term. There is no question that diplomacy and open lines of communication are far better than ‘fire and fury,” especially on the Korean Peninsula. But ultimately, we need more than good feelings and handshakes. Presidents Reagan and Obama were not allowed to base their negotiations on that, nor should they have been, and President Trump should look to their examples when moving forward with negotiations.

Kevin Walling (@kpwalling) is a Democratic strategist, Vice President at HGCreative, co-founder of Celtic Strategies, and a regular guest on Fox News and Fox Business.