On North Korea, give Trump some credit

On North Korea, give Trump some credit
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June 12, 2018 could very well be a make-or-break moment for world peace, international stability and U.S. national security. This is when President Donald Trump flies to Singapore to look North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the eyes and begin what could very well turn out to be a long, frustrating and stressful process of diplomatic horse trading.  

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This is not the first time an American president has attempted to negotiate in good faith with a Kim. We all know the general outlines of the story; Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense Some considerations for the US-Iran political interchange Starr makes Trump team debut: We are living in an 'age of impeachment' MORE, George W. Bush, and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSouth Carolina woman behind popular Obama slogan says she backs Steyer Sanders surges while Warren wanes Buttigieg: America 'united in mourning' Kobe Bryant's death MORE all talked with the North Koreans and even managed to strike nuclear agreements them, but the deals eventually collapsed and the diplomatic process eventually broke down.

 

For a number of reasons — North Korean obfuscation, domestic U.S. politics, problems with verification  and the inherent paranoia embedded in the Kim regime’s very character — Washington and Pyongyang have yet to reach a mutually acceptable agreement that provides both sides with what they desperately want: Normalization and permanent security for the North and the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) for the U.S.  

The ultimate goal for the United States is the same as it has always been since the early 1990s.

What is different today is that the Kim regime is already a nuclear weapons power, which means the White House will have to offer more diplomatic and economic concessions to Pyongyang if it is to achieve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

To the Trump administration’s credit, there appears to be something in the air that leads one to believe (or at least hope) that an agreement can in fact be struck. While we are still in the opening stages of the diplomatic process, the White House is taking diplomacy with the utmost seriousness. Senior administration officials, like Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoState Department removes NPR reporter from Pompeo trip Overnight Defense: US military jet crashes in Afghanistan | Rocket attack hits US embassy in Baghdad | Bolton bombshell rocks impeachment trial Please stop calling the impeachment proceeding a trial — it's a charade MORE, are saying all the right things and acknowledging that the United States cannot rely on economic strangulation and political pressure alone.  
If North Korea’s denuclearization is to be accomplished, Kim Jong Un will need to be granted assurances that he and his regime will be safe even without a nuclear arsenal and ICBM capability.

As Pompeo told Fox News last Sunday, “If we’re going to get to this historic outcome, both sides have to be prepared to take truly historic measures to achieve it.” For Washington, this will involve considerable sanctions relief, dropping regime change as a long-term U.S. objective, and normalizing relations with the North once the entirety of its nuclear weapons — including all of the centrifuges, research documents, testing sites, and plutonium facilities — are packed up and destroyed to America’s satisfaction.

The outline of a prospective agreement with the North is not a mystery. U.S. negotiators are well aware that CVID is the aspiration and that nothing short of that benchmark will be good enough to members of Congress.

If the White House wishes to avoid the possibility of the next president undoing what it achieved with the North Koreans, the Trump administration must submit any accord it signs to Congress for debate and ratification.  

And yet while we are all hoping and praying for a successful outcome, the U.S. must also prepare for the likelihood that no amount of concessions will persuade Kim Jong-inept to part ways with his “treasured sword.” Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s First Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, tempered expectations considerably in his May 15 statement, in which he scolded the U.S. for believing that Pyongyang would adopt a Libya-style denuclearization scheme up-front. “If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment,” Gwan said, “we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit.”

So, if President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense MORE cannot come back to Washington with a nuclear agreement in hand, he need not worry — and neither does he need to resort to more forceful military options, which would very likely include the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the use of the very nuclear weapons Washington hopes to destroy.

Thanks to American power and leverage in the region, in addition to Kim Jong Un’s obsession with survival, the United States retains the capability to deter Pyongyang from rash actions.

We should all be cheering the Trump administration along as it embarks on its most important foreign policy mission yet. But we should also keep our expectations low and be level-headed and rational if things don’t go our way.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military to ensure security, stability and peace.