Charting a roadmap for North Korea

The past two months show that the window of opportunity opened by the Singapore summit for scaling back tensions between the United States and North Korea is closing rapidly. Depending on what Kim Jong Un emphasizes in his address this week, and how President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE responds, we may be just days away from the two states drifting further apart.

To get back on course, the United States and North Korea need to chart out and commit to acting on a roadmap for scheduled and reciprocal actions within a structure of regular diplomatic meetings for achieving benchmarks that are priorities for each nation. Such an approach to nuclear crisis management has a strong track record in our history.

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More than five decades ago, to show how the United States and the Soviet Union could reduce the prospects of nuclear war, American psychologist Charles Osgood developed a novel communication process known as the graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension reduction. This approach uses well conceived actions that will be understood by the foe as a meaningful concession. For taking such actions, the initiator expects a corresponding action that reduces elements of the dispute and builds confidence in achieving more progress on more difficult issues.

President Kennedy used a graduated and reciprocated initiatives and tension reduction approach in his 1963 speech at American University, wherein he committed the United States to scaling back the arms race by ending atmospheric testing as a first step, whether or not the Soviets followed. This became a foundation for stable relations and a series of arms control agreements between the superpowers for the next decade.

To engage Kim Jong Un in such a new quid pro quo framework, the United States needs to sketch out the contours in first draft form and invite the North Koreans to add and subtract as they would like. Meanwhile, the United States should convey its own commitment to this negotiation process by announcing some initial actions it will take early this year to advance the process. There are significant advantages to Washington and Pyongyang for adopting the communication discipline of such a roadmap.

Due to the absence of a detailed bargaining plan, neither President Trump nor Kim Jong Un derived the benefits that were hoped for from the major conciliatory actions they already have taken. On his side, Kim Jong Un has suspended nuclear and missile tests, as well as returned some remains of American service members from the Korean War. For his part, President Trump initiated the first summit and suspended major military exercises. But these actions were not tied to clear diplomatic messaging about what corresponding level of cooperation would move shared security forward.

Rather, this period following the Singapore summit has been marked by an awkward bilateral dance dominated by maximalist demands, mixed messages, and canceled diplomatic meetings. Since this bilateral process is driven primarily by President Trump and Kim Jong Un, they can use their forthcoming summit to affirm the concept of such a roadmap and charge their diplomatic and military working groups to develop a plan over the next two years to five years to move the skeleton draft to a full framework.

As the initiator and to demonstrate its renewed commitment, the United States can take a range of actions to kickstart the new process before the next summit. Suspending the sanctions on humanitarian agencies and goods, along with beginning the steps to end the Korean War through a treaty with Pyongyang, would be useful. Another step further would be suspending those sanctions that stand in the way of the full functioning of the railroad that links North Korea and South Korea. In reciprocity, North Korea should return all the remains of American service members it still holds and openly declare that its nuclear and missile testing has ended.

Beyond this first phase, and with a mutually agreed upon plan of actions, would occur difficult but realizable deals on the declaration of the nuclear and missile sites in North Korea, to be followed by selective international inspection of some of these. In exchange, the United States would issue a moratorium lasting three years on military exercises and undertake the selective sanctions relief aimed at goods and trade that today negatively impact civilian economic and social development within North Korea.

At this critical juncture, relations between the United States and North Korea are no longer about who is to blame for lack of progress, who is trustworthy, or when and how complete verifiable denuclearization is achieved. Instead, what is needed is a roadmap to produce tangible achievements. These will build confidence and increase the odds of getting to the difficult core issues that remain. The administration is fully capable of creating the plan and the momentum to activate it this year.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor Emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He served on the United Nations Security Council panel of experts for North Korea sanctions and was vice president at the United States Institute of Peace.