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North Korea dangles ‘denuclearization’ like a hunter setting a trap

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With multiple reports breaking that North Korea is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it seems all but certain that a summit will occur between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

Or not.

We should all hold our collective breath, at least for the next few days. While it is clearly promising that Kim is willing to talk about giving up his nukes, we are far from the day of inspectors landing in Pyongyang — or even the two leaders sitting down for an actual summit. In fact, I would offer five big questions we all must ask before we draw any conclusions on Kim’s supposed confirmation to talk about the ending of his nuclear program.

{mosads}First, what does denuclearization mean to Kim? My definition, the total ending of his nuclear weapons program, the destruction of every single one of his nuclear weapons, demolition of all of Pyongyang’s nuclear reactors and handing over of any records of any nuclear technology transfers — I am looking at you, Iran — might be a bitter pill to swallow.

In fact, North Korea may have a very different interpretation, which could end any possibility of talks. For example, Kim might want to hand over all his nuclear weapons, but may want to keep his nuclear reactors and technology for non-military uses. Would we allow that? Knowing North Korea’s past violation of, well, every agreement it has ever signed?

Second, would Kim toss out a nuclear “poison-pill”, like stating that South Korea would need to remove all 20-plus nuclear reactors it has from service as a precondition as well?

We can’t discount such a demand, as we must remember we are talking the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — language Kim could exploit to demand South Korea give up any possible pathways to their own nuclear weapon, no matter how remote the possibility.

Third, how would such a feat, ending Kim’s nuclear weapons program, be accomplished? Would Kim agree to the total opening of his country to hundreds of nuclear weapons inspectors who would document, quantify, and then dismantle his nuclear weapons program? Would North Korea allow the unfettered access to all parts of his so-called hermit kingdom, even military bases or his own homes or resorts?

Fourth, what about North Korea’s missile technology? Surely, we won’t make the same mistake as the Iran nuclear deal, where we allowed Tehran to keep the ability to develop any and all missile platforms they wish and potentially sell such technology to the highest bidder.

Imagine a situation where Pyongyang continues to master ballistic and cruise missile technology — and then quits or cheats on any nuclear agreement? We would face a situation where North Korea could then sprint to a full nuclear-tipped ICBM weapons capability quickly — and we would have very few options to stop them, short of war.

Fifth, and perhaps the most important, what would North Korea demand for giving up its nuclear weapons in a fully verifiable manor? Considering that Pyongyang back in 2009 wanted $10 billion just for having a summit with South Korea, Kim’s demands could simply be unmeetable.

Just thinking through some of the things in the past the regime has hinted at make a deal seem potentially unworkable. Such demands could include:

  • The ending of all sanctions;
  • A formal peace treaty ending the Korean War;
  • Full diplomatic recognition by the United States and an exchange of ambassadors;
  • The dismantling of the Demilitarized Zone and withdrawal of U.S. forces to a more southern position in South Korea, if not their full withdrawal from South Korea or even all of Northeast Asia;
  • A non-aggression pact, something long demanded by North Korea, signed by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo;
  • Economic assistance to the tune of billions of dollars to rebuild North Korea’s rotten infrastructure, while wholly reintegrating Pyongyang into the global economy;
  • Investment in North Korea’s natural resources, which many experts see as worth trillions of dollars, money that could go a long way into rebuilding the country, and finally;
  • Energy and food assistance for a predetermined period of time to ensure North Korea’s stability.

But, to be fair, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. America and North Korea still must decide on a time and place to meet — something that might not be easy with the Kim regime hoping to have the summit in Pyongyang, a non-starter for Team Trump in that it would give North Korea a huge legitimacy boost.

They must also agree to an agenda and have clear deliverables for both sides to claim a victory domestically, as neither party is going to just assume that they can negotiate anything face to face in a few hours or a day or two — we must remember, modern summits are scripted affairs, and their outcomes today are predetermined to avoid disaster. Can all of that be agreed to for a summit by the end of next month? Can decades of mistrust disappear that fast?

Most likely no.

Know this: North Korea has never, ever kept its word and can’t be trusted. Period. I would argue that this is all likely just a reuse, a clever ploy by Pyongyang to gain either important economic concessions, time to develop its nuclear weapons program, or draw in the Trump administration into years of negotiations just like the George W. Bush administration.

While I always remain hopeful a settlement can be found, a simple reading of just recent history tells me otherwise.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, as well as executive editor on its publishing arm, The National Interest. Kazianis previously served on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign. He has also held positions as Foreign Policy Communications Manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat as well as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump East Asia Iran nuclear weapons Kim Jong-un Korea North Korea north korea denuclearization North Korea–United States relations Nuclear proliferation Nuclear weapons Politics Ted Cruz

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