In new North Korea talks, ‘achievable’ is the watchword
The United States and North Korea could open a new round of working-level talks later this month or in early December, a South Korean official has indicated, and the timing is critical due to Pyongyang’s year-end deadline to move past the negotiations’ current stall.
If 2020 arrives without further progress, North Korean state media warned in late October, the “close personal relations” between President Trump and leader Kim Jong-un will be no more.
Fresh working-level talks are always to be welcomed, but there are three important points to realize as Kim’s deadline draws near.
First, our goals must be modest. Kim will not give up his nuclear arsenal easily, as his primary aim in all this is to retain power, to provide himself some insurance against forcible regime change like that suffered by nuke-less dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Demanding North Korea capitulate and surrender all its nukes before any further negotiations is a dead-end move.
But that does not mean diplomacy is pointless. There are plenty of smaller concessions both sides can make to begin to normalize North Korea’s international relations (and, hopefully, Kim’s treatment of his people as well). We can start small. Washington could offer to lift sanctions, especially those that affect ordinary North Koreans’ quality of life, and — as we’ve done in the recent past — cancel the military drills with South Korea to which the Kim regime vociferously objects.
Pyongyang, in turn, could continue to build relations with South Korea, halt missile testing, and implement a nuclear freeze. None of this would be the flashy, final agreement both sides might prefer, but it is also far more achievable in the foreseeable future.
Second, focusing too much on the drama of “close personal relations” is a mistake. It’s not a bad thing, I suppose, to have Trump declaring his “love” for Kim and Kim, per Trump son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner, viewing the president “like a new father figure.” But neither is it a sound basis for normalizing U.S.-North Korea relations long-term. This relationship has proven volatile, and anyway, Trump has at most five more years in office. Yet America likely will have to engage the Kim regime for decades—especially if we refuse to budge on our demands now. The personal dynamics between Trump and Kim should be used however possible, but they are mostly a distraction from the more mundane diplomatic work to be done.
And third, lest we forget: We always have the upper hand. North Korea’s possession of a nuclear arsenal changes — but absolutely does not tip — its balance of power with the United States. Kim knows full well that if he launched an unprovoked attack on the U.S. or an ally like South Korea, the American military response would be swift and overwhelming. He knows his regime would not survive. And given his priority of regime survival, U.S. deterrence is functionally infinite. In practice, then, this deadline is meaningless. Whether we have a deal by January or not, conventional U.S. deterrence will continue to prevent a Pyongyang-initiated war.
Preventing war, after all, is our ultimate aim. Exacting lesser concessions or even achieving total denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula are means to this end. Keeping that truth in mind should always guide U.S.-North Korean diplomacy toward attainable goals. They may be smaller goals than we would like, but they’re also what we need to keep the peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.