5 ways Trump can end the North Korea crisis once and for all

On Jan. 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will deliver his annual New Year’s Day address. The world will read and reread the chairman’s remarks, looking for vital clues about whether Pyongyang is serious when it comes to giving up its nuclear weapons — or, whether it might take the world back to the brink of nuclear showdown, like 2017.

Unfortunately, Kim seems destined to disappoint just about everyone. If his speech follows the same pattern as last year, it will include a carefully calibrated mix of propaganda aimed at domestic audiences and olive branches aimed at Washington and the rest of the world. Surely there will be some words of caution mixed in for the Trump administration —  and the media once again will overreact or misinterpret these — but there will be no references to a “nuclear button,” as there were last year.

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At the very least, Kim wants to keep the status-quo — a fragile détente with America and a growing relationship with South Korea — intact at least for the short term.  

I will be most interested to see how Kim expresses his disappointment toward Washington. It seems Pyongyang has grown tired of the Trump administration’s all-or-nothing approach to nuclear negotiations, demanding that Kim give up the entirety of his nuclear program before granting any sanctions relief — a demand that is destined to fail. In fact, the agreement signed by Kim and President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE at their summit in Singapore commits both sides to a reboot of U.S.-North Korea relations. Nuclear weapons are a vital part — but not the only part — and both sides are to craft a “peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula.

For North Korea, building “new U.S.-DPRK relations” — the first point of the Singapore Declaration — is a gradual ending of Washington’s so-called “hostile policy.” This means the end of economic sanctions and the Korean War; the cancellation of deployments of nuclear capable platforms to the peninsula; and the eventual reinstatement of diplomatic relations.

All of this would take time — likely years — but would be done in an action-for action basis, where reciprocity would be the key component needed for diplomatic breakthroughs. For America, complete and total nuclear disarmament seems to be the only goal, with little thought apparently given to anything else.  

Clearly, if we are to arrive at a lasting peace, we must find a way to bridge this gap. I would argue that President Trump, whom I consider to be a foreign policy realist, has a unique opportunity to secure that peace.

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Here are five key ways to ensure that 2019 is a year of historic change when it comes to U.S.-North Korea ties:

  1. Think like Kim. This unthinkable task for America’s national security leadership is a critical part of trying to end the never-ending North Korean crisis. One-fiftieth the size of South Korea’s economy, North Korea is an impoverished and backward state that most of the world would like to see disappear. Kim’s only bargaining chip and means for survival are his nuclear weapons. Without them, he has no way to deter any perceived threat from Washington, Seoul or any other country. He isn’t likely to give them up unless he feels secure — something that will take years to achieve.

  2. Change course. Understanding how Kim thinks should lead Trump and his advisers to conclude the obvious: U.S. strategy towards the North will fail if the present course continues. Demanding that North Korea surrender its nuclear weapons on a promise that we will grant sanctions relief almost guarantees we will return to the “fire and fury” of 2017 at some point in 2019.

  3. Negotiate. We must begin to craft a realistic policy towards North Korea that incents them to come to the table to negotiate, and not just wait out Washington and Seoul for better terms. The key tenant of such a policy is to declare denuclearization the end goal of a transformed relationship, as opposed to the only goal.

  4. Keep promises. Once this approach is adopted, the administration can craft a roadmap with the North to ensure both sides receive clear benefits for keeping the promises made to one another. For example, if North Korea were to declare how many nuclear weapons it has, as well as the amount of fissile material it possesses for making such nukes, Washington would agree to take Pyongyang off its State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

  5. Welcome Seoul’s peace-brokering. President Trump should look to South Korean President Moon Jae-in as his secret weapon, a broker who could save negotiations from falling apart, if need be. South Korea’s president has engineered what I have dubbed the “Moon Miracle” — that is, using an incremental approach of building trust with North Korea. This year alone, Moon and Kim held three summits and began working on issues to create a foundation of better relations, including reducing military activity along their border.

This coming year does not need to be one of crises, with regard to North Korea. If the Trump administration can step back and consider a slightly softer, more realistic approach, who knows how much progress could be made. But if we stick to the same policy, we should understand that we’re likely to get the same dangerous results.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.