'Trust but verify' is no easy task with North Korea

'Trust but verify' is no easy task with North Korea
© Getty Images

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates MORE expects to meet with North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un (KJU) in late February. Before he does, he should commit to Ronald Reagan’s rule for arms control agreements: “Trust but verify.” 

Therein lies the problem. North Korea violated every nuclear agreement its leaders ever signed. Kim Il-sung,  KJU's grandfather, signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, but by 1990 he was building a nuclear reactor in a manner that violated the agreement.  

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1994, North Korea signed an “agreed framework” with the Clinton administration with the goal of discontinuing Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and other aid. Its nuclear research continued, and it began selling missile parts to Iraq and Pakistan, which resulted in more sanctions. The agreed-upon framework broke down completely in December 2002.

Then in 2003, KJU’s father Kim Jong-Il announced that North Korea had a nuclear weapon. From 2004 to 2008, he played along with international negotiations, known as the Six Party Talks, offering concessions in exchange for aid or for a relaxation of sanctions, only to resume work on nuclear weapons and missiles once he collected fuel oil, food and, in one case, cash.  

Clearly, this record makes it difficult to have the trust needed to build a verification regime. It also suggests that before we can move forward with an agreement on nuclear weapons, we should step back and ask KJU for an interim agreement that will give him a chance to prove that he will adhere to several small steps.

KJU can demonstrate his sincerity by agreeing to reduce the immediate conventional military threat against South Korea’s population centers. North Korea has placed between 6,000 and 8,000 artillery pieces just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), well within range of Seoul. 

A full barrage would level much of South Korea’s capital city in less than an hour. Notwithstanding the focus on nuclear weapons, these conventional forces are critically important in the calculation of any warfighter.  

By allowing the United Nations to verify the removal and destruction of these weapons, KJU will both decrease tension on the peninsula and generate the confidence needed to begin serious talks on denuclearization. The Trump administration could then reciprocate by re-deploying U.S. forces away from the DMZ. 

The second deliverable at the coming summit should be to give meaning to the somewhat vague term “denuclearization.” It must include the dismantling of nuclear weapons, an end to nuclear enrichment and positive control of all fissile material. 

This last point is critically important. KJU knows full well that using a nuclear weapon would be suicide for his nation. He must also accept that selling nuclear material to any nation or to any non-state actor would also have dire consequences. Thus, the term “denuclearization” must be broad-based and unequivocal. 

Should KJU demonstrate a commitment to a reduction in conventional arms and a definition of denuclearization, the U.S. government should consider easing selected sanctions, particularly those that would restore humanitarian aid. At the top of this list would be medical supplies and other such materials that have been held back.

The two Koreas appear eager to sign a peace treaty. While that would be a positive step, a treaty simply replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a nominal peace treaty is not sufficient. 

The agreement must also create a framework for the future that would recognize that the mandate of the United Nations' Korea Command remains in place until the completion of the denuclearization process. 

The lack of progress since their first summit frames the coming discussions between Trump and Kim. While it would be a mistake to conclude that the lack of progress is a failure, in peace negotiations as in so many other areas, the prolonged lack of progress can make success ever more difficult.

For this reason, the next summit must deliver tangible progress to include a definition of denuclearization. 

Going into the summit, all parties should acknowledge that nominal progress will be suspect unless the summit creates a mechanism that will allow KJU to prove that he is willing to break with the past and actually live up to an agreement.

Richard Holwill, a retired U.S. ambassador, was counselor to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1991 to 1993.