In Vietnam, US must not offer premature concessions to North Korea

During his State of the Union address, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'Haven't thought about' pardons for Mueller target Pence: Rocket attack 'proves that Hamas is not a partner for peace' Conservation remains a core conservative principle MORE announced that his second summit with Kim Jong un will occur on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam. But as the recently released Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community has noted, “North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key U.S. and international concessions.” As such, to maximize prospects for success, the Trump administration needs a defined game plan that accounts for likely intransigence from Pyongyang.

The planned summit comes in the wake of significant U.S. sanctions on North Korea and its enablers. The Trump administration issued 156 sanctions designations in its first 16 months. (By contrast, the Obama administration issued only 154 in eight years.) Notably, targets included not only North Korean actors but also non-North Korean companies and individuals facilitating Pyongyang’s sanctions-busting schemes. This pressure likely helped persuade Pyongyang to return to talks.

At the same time, North Korea’s highly visible progress in nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development likely provided Kim with a confidence boost to finally engage the U.S. Specifically, Kim Jong Un has publicly stated numerous times that North Korea completed its nuclear force.

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Overall, these developments make it difficult to assess whether Kim’s push for diplomacy stems from a strategic decision to dismantle his nuclear arsenal. But if the first summit in Singapore is any indication, Kim may still be interested more in deceptive and duplicitous diplomacy than in good-faith negotiations that could lead to denuclearization.

At the time, President Trump issued two major, unreciprocated concessions. First, he agreed to sign a joint statement with Kim that included a vague pledge for “the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” This language mirrors the wording of North Korean propaganda aimed at pressuring America to withdraw its own nuclear weapons in the broader region that could strike North Korea. Second, the president unexpectedly suspended combined military exercises with South Korea without consulting his own defense officials or his South Korean counterparts.

These concessions apparently occurred on the spur of the moment, without any prior working-level negotiations. Such erratic decision-making thus suggests that reserving substantive negotiations for the head-of-state level poses significant risks.

Fortunately, the Trump administration appears to have learned its lesson. In August, it appointed a new special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, to lead working-level talks, and he is now leading preparations for the upcoming summit. Additionally, it established a joint U.S.-South Korea working group, led by Biegun and Lee Do Hoon, South Korea’s special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs, to improve coordination on North Korean issues.

To be sure, the impact of these working-level talks on the forthcoming summit remains to be seen. Likewise, one summit alone is unlikely to achieve the final and fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.

But the talks in Vietnam do offer Washington and Pyongyang an opportunity to establish a framework for future negotiations. Thus, the working-level discussions should work to formulate a clear and precise statement of principles that defines what constitutes North Korean denuclearization. Additionally, a roadmap for dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities will be essential for establishing a process that not only builds bilateral trust, but also yields practical progress.

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As working-level talks proceed, the administration must remember that any concessions require North Korean reciprocity. Despite dragging its feet on denuclearization, Pyongyang has demanded that America lift sanctions, sign peace declarations, and remove U.S. troops and military assets from Korea and the broader region. President Trump should remember that curtailing U.S. forces would significantly weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which has been the lynchpin for the Korean peninsula’s security.

Washington must make clear to Pyongyang that concessions, particularly sanctions relief, will come only when North Korea ends the full range of its malign conduct. To date, in fact, Washington has sanctioned North Korea not only for its nuclear development, but also for its human rights abuses, money laundering, illicit finance, and cyber warfare, among other misbehavior pursuant to the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016. If Pyongyang seeks ways to see sanctions removal, Washington’s negotiators should then bring up the aforementioned issues, such as human rights, in the upcoming talks. Leaving these issues unaddressed will only obstruct the establishment of genuine peace and trust on the Korean peninsula.

President Trump therefore must resist the temptation to win a quick yet flawed deal; he must resist lifting any of these sanctions prematurely until Pyongyang complies with the specific corresponding measures.

With the summit only weeks away, Washington has rapidly diminishing time to prepare. While the administration’s intent is to help the North achieve a brighter future that can only happen if Kim makes the right strategic choice. The Trump administration needs to confront him with a stern test of his intentions, by insisting on specific steps toward denuclearization along with a clear timeline that can end with a brighter future.

David Maxwell is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. He is a 30-year veteran of the United States Army, retiring in 2011 as a Special Forces colonel, with his final assignment serving on the military faculty teaching national security strategy at the National War College. Mathew Ha is a research associate at FDD focusing on North Korea. Follow them on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk.