Singapore talks: Curb the urgency and haste

Singapore talks: Curb the urgency and haste
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The Singapore talks are back on. So said President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE on Friday, wrapping up a two-hour meeting with top North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol as the two sides continue to hammer out kinks for the U.S.-DPRK summit on June 12. The president’s 15-minute presser was peppered with buzzwords that the media would be eager to latch upon — “positive,” “sanctions,” “maximum pressure,” “ending the Korean War” — but stopped short of providing specifics. “We will see what we will see,” regarding how the talks will unfold in Singapore, the president coyly said.

With about a week remaining until the historic meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the Kremlin on Monday announced that Vladimir Putin has invited the North Korean leader to visit Russia as part of an economic forum to be held in Vladivostok in September.


President Trump’s comments, meanwhile, at first blush painted an ostensibly optimistic and anticipatory picture of the outcome we could expect from his meeting with Kim — despite what we’ve seen, heard and know about dealing with Pyongyang. That Kim Yong Chol spent nearly two hours each with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo says he and Pentagon warned Russia against bounties on US troops in Afghanistan US blocking private charter flights to Cuba China's Confucius Institute designated as a foreign mission of Beijing MORE in New York and President Trump in Washington also lends the perception that we might be on the path toward what could go down in history as the crowning achievement for the leaders of the United States, South Korea and North Korea.


But ceremony and formalities eclipse the sober truth. If even the Trump-Kim talks proceed smoothly and the two sides announce a roadmap to solve the 70-year-old problem, that roadmap certainly won’t be linear. In addition to Russia, we likely see increased involvement from Japan and China, as these remaining regional stakeholders continue to assert their national interests in laying out a path forward on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Unequivocally, Pyongyang’s nuclear program is at the heart of the dilemma on the Korean Peninsula, but a string of ancillary issues follows — including addressing the regime’s human rights violations, economic assistance in exchange for Pyongyang giving up its nuclear weapons (if this should happen), some type of U.S. guarantee of non-aggression toward North Korea (again, contingent upon the DPRK’s denuclearization), and ultimately, discussions on the U.S.-South Korea alliance within the context of an evolving security environment in the region.

Thankfully, all sides seem cognizant — or at least publicly caveat their positions — that a straight and sequential solution would be incongruous for a complexly-wrought problem. Both Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have alluded to a tough and long battle ahead. President Trump has echoed the caution, describing the summit as marking the beginning of a process and moderating expectations for immediate positive results.

With the exception of Kim Jong Un, who holds eternal leadership in his country, both Presidents Moon and Trump are operating under time constraints circumscribed by their presidency terms. For President Moon, the clock stops in 2022. For President Trump, 2020, or if he is reelected, 2024. It’s possible, of course, that the two leaders have a long and generous timeline in mind to fix the North Korea problem by passing the baton to their successors. Likely, however, they will want to leave an achievement on North Korea by the end of their terms. We’re looking at coming to some sort of a monumental agreement and semi-tangible deliverable in the next several years.

That doesn’t seem like a realistic timetable, given the many layers we would still need to peel with North Korea. We don’t even know for certain how many nuclear weapons the DPRK possesses — estimates range from as few as 20 to as many as 60. And verification opens up another Pandora’s box.

Let’s suppose North Korea agrees to hand over its nukes. We’d be too trusting to assume that Kim would relinquish his entire nuclear arsenal in the first round. If Kim is actually willing to give up his nukes, he will probably bargain off only a small fraction — enough to lend credibility and make some progress in negotiations. Retention of his nuclear weapons program guarantees Kim’s security and strengthens his position in brinkmanship and negotiations. We should remain skeptical that the North Koreans will cooperate so easily.

Imposing a timetable to solve the North Korean dilemma could lead us down the dangerous path of wearing blinders during a time when we should be most vigilant, circumspect and skeptical of not just North Korea’s intentions but our own intentions and that of our key partners, as well. A Washington or Seoul too bent on solving this decades-old problem within a presidency could lead to concessions and leniency that ultimately could breed a state of security and economic disrepair in the region.

An all-too-eager South Korea already has started sharing blueprints of economic cooperation with North Korea, even before the Kim regime has taken any concrete, verifiable steps to assure that it is holding up its end of the commitment.

To our knowledge, Washington thankfully has not made any binding commitments to North Korea — and it should not until Pyongyang takes one step forward to show its sincerity and commitment to staying on the path toward denuclearization.

Perhaps the most striking comment by President Trump was his hinting at the possibility of even ending the Korean War. This, of course, is the ultimate outcome all parties desire. But a peace declaration that precedes or fails to have as a non-negotiable North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization will bring us back to right where we started. For the Kim regime, this could be a recipe for success — a peace declaration without having to give up its nuclear program. For the United States, South Korea and other players in the region, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Solving the North Korean Rubik’s cube would be the crowning achievement for any presidency. And of course, a reasonable timeline to track progress and North Korean accountability is advisable. But too fixated on the deadline, and we’ll find ourselves in an even greater dilemma, making concessions and overlooking small infractions.

Singapore marks the beginning — not the end — of a long and difficult road ahead with North Korea. Let’s check our urgency and haste at the door.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program.