No 'Missouri Moment' at North Korea summit, but perhaps a chance for peace

No 'Missouri Moment' at North Korea summit, but perhaps a chance for peace
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Eight months ago, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong Un met in Singapore and agreed to the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Following euphoria and great expectations about “the art of the possible,” and then growing cynicism over the lack of progress, we are at another milestone with a second summit in Hanoi this week.

While the two leaders exude a sense of optimism, many policymakers and Korea-watchers are skeptical. This skepticism is borne of past frustration and flawed assumptions about what can be achieved with North Korea and how to go about it.

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It is time to stop obsessing about denuclearization and focus instead on what we can achieve with North Korea. Denuclearization is an end goal, but not the only goal for the United States in this week’s summit.

Over the course of four administrations, U.S. policy myopically focused on the “art of the impossible”  and, for this reason, failed. Now for the first time, the United States seems grudgingly to be moving beyond its decades-old policy of seeking denuclearization first — and if it does, the Vietnam summit will likely be a success.  

Why is this happening now? The answer is simple: Finally, U.S. leaders have begun to take North Korea’s calculus into account.

First, the Trump administration seems to understand that Kim did not agree to the U.S. interpretation of denuclearization at the Singapore summit. In other words, he did not agree to unilateral denuclearization, which the rhetoric of the administration and Western media suggested at the time. What Kim agreed to was “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a concept to which North Korea has subscribed since the 1950s. It includes not just concessions on North Korea’s part but equal (although undefined) concessions from the United States with regard to security on the peninsula.

The notion, as articulated by many within the administration such as national security adviser John Bolton, that North Korea will significantly (if not completely) denuclearize on the front end of engagement is a non-starter. From Pyongyang’s point of view, such unilateral concessions would not only leave it with no leverage going forward, it would undermine Kim’s legitimacy and potentially put the regime at risk. As the weaker power, North Korea cannot make the first irreversible concession. To do so would only make it weaker vis-à-vis the United States and South Korea, a situation it cannot abide.

When it comes to shaping Pyongyang’s calculus on its nuclear program, it is important to come to terms with some inconvenient truths that have hampered U.S. policy.

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First, North Korea and the Kim family have a strong rationale for their nuclear program: U.S. actions since the end of the Cold War have made it clear that nothing short of a nuclear deterrent can prevent regime change — and Washington is not above embarking on regime-ending conflicts even without direct provocation. If this rationale is not dealt with first, getting the regime to part with its nuclear program is a near impossibility. Just because the nuclear program violates international proliferation norms or exists under sanction does not mean Pyongyang will give up the program.

Second, the nuclear program is not just a deterrent against regime change from the United States, it is one of Kim’s few sources of legitimacy. In the absence of others, such as economic progress, Kim is not likely to make major, irreversible concessions on something that underlines his bona fides as a strong leader on national security.

Third, China is not going to carry Washington’s water on denuclearization. Beijing has its own equities on the peninsula and they do not necessarily line up with those of the United States. In addition, China’s influence inside the house of Kim is limited.

Fourth, pressure alone will not work to shape North Korea’s decisions. China will enforce United Nations sanctions, but it will not completely seal off North Korea from outside sources of aid, which means that the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” will not work and is inherently flawed as a strategy.

Finally, Kim does not have a lot of time to solve internal challenges. He has pressures to deal with — as recent purges reveal — and, if he cannot achieve sanctions relief through diplomacy, he might return to brinkmanship, meaning a return to 2017, or worse.

This summit may possibly mark a fundamental change in U.S. strategy toward North Korea. Denuclearization may be replaced with a peace regime, as the United States builds a new path to North Korea based upon trust and leverage. Pyongyang has put forth a phased approach as the way forward, and this is what we should work toward.

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Washington should agree to these terms and begin a process based on reciprocity. Imbedded in this approach would be major concessions by North Korea on its nuclear program. The United States should counter with actual sanctions relief. This hopefully would convince the international community to embark on a new course and allow the United Nations to take the necessary steps to inject flexibility into the process.

Concessions could be calibrated based on steps taken by Pyongyang with regard to denuclearization. While full verification may take time to achieve, if ever, given issues of sovereignty and regime security, such a phased process could lead to a significant dismantling of the nuclear program, which would place security on the peninsula on a much firmer footing.

Why is this approach more likely to work than past U.S. policies?

First, Kim is not his father or his grandfather. The dynamics inside the regime today operate differently than before, and the horizon that Kim is looking at is marked out in decades, not years. For his long-term survival and that of his regime, he must think strategically and not settle for short-term tactical gains. While it is true that his foundational policy is that of “Byungjin,” which promises the co-development of the economy and the nuclear program, it does not mean that one side can’t be valued more than the other. And for U.S. and regional security, a North Korea that values its economy over a nascent (and contained) nuclear program might be something we have to live with, at least for the time being.

In the end, we must understand that, to get North Korea to denuclearize, we will not have a “Missouri Moment” — like Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri battleship, ending World War II — in which the U.S. can dictate the surrender of North Korea’s nuclear program upon the summit’s conclusion. Geography and 70 years of history ensure that outcome will not happen.

What we can hope for, however, is a measured evolution on the peninsula in which North Korea is slowly brought out of its shell and into the international community. Over time, hopefully, a peace treaty and economic aid will allow the regime the space to evolve from a totalitarian Cold War leftover threatening its neighbors and mistreating its people, and into something more worthy of the world’s respect.

Ken E. Gause is the author of “North Korean House of Cards” and the Jamestown Foundation’s white paper, “Assessing North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine and the Prospects for Denuclearization: Diplomacy in the Land of No Good Options.” He directs the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a defense think tank located in northern Virginia.