There is a possibility of complete denuclearization of North Korea in the years to come. But Washington needs to handle diplomacy in a manner similar to steps taken toward normalization of relations with Vietnam. Those steps involved a Road Map involving graduated unilateral confidence building measures on both sides. When Step 1 was completed, the two countries then went on to Step 2 and similarly to Step 3 and later achieved complete normalization of relations.
North Korea began the current diplomatic effort by announcing a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests in November 2017. Subsequently, Pyongyang proposed a summit meeting with Donald Trump. Next, Kim Jong Un sent kind words to the American president. In response to the graduated unilateral gestures by Kim Jong UN, Trump agreed to meet his counterpart, and a series of Steps began similar to a Road Map.
Step 1, setting the agenda for future diplomacy, was the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong UN and Donald Trump on June 12, 2018. The resulting Sentosa Agreement set three important goals to which the leaders agreed. One was eventual peace between the two countries with security guarantees that neither side would threaten or use war again against each other. The second priority was an American concession – to establish normal commercial and diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. The third priority was a North Korean concession – a pledge to denuclearize. Denuclearization could not occur until both countries took specific measures toward the first goal.
Step 2 was not a series of pledges but concrete action. The United States, which had previously refused to accept shipment of bodies of Americans missing in action during the Korean War, agreed to receive them from North Korea. Such shipments soon took place, as promised in the Sentosa Agreement. At about the time of the Singapore summit, North Korea destroyed the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, albeit without international verification. In response, Trump agreed to halt provocative wargames with South Korea, many of which previously simulated attacks on North Korea.
Step 3 has already proceeded, consisting of North Korea’s unilateral offer to dismantle the missile engine test site and launch platform in Dongchang-ri, inviting American inspectors to verify. But the United States has not responded to such a gradualist approach, which Washington might reciprocate by easing the travel ban for humanitarian workers.
Instead of moving on to Step 3, Washington has demanded an accounting of all missile and nuclear facilities, something that would in effect ask North Korea to increase military vulnerability before any security guarantees. Washington’s demand is premature, perhaps appropriate at Step 10, 11, or beyond.
Step 4 may consist of further reciprocated confidence building measures. North Korea has offered to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear complex along with international verification. But Kim Jong UN awaits an American response to his proposal, such as relaxation of food and medicine sanctions, which are not now imposed on Iran.
Step 5, already in progress between the two Koreas, would be a mutual declaration of an end to the Korean War. Such a declaration would be the main agenda at the second summit between Kim and Trump. The summit might also include mutual security guarantees.
Step 6 would be the establishment of a working group to begin drafting a peace treaty. The treaty would presumably be signed during a third summit (Step 20 or 21 or later). The summit might also identify gradual denuclearization steps along with gradual relaxation of economic sanctions leading up to increasing shipments of fuel oil.
Steps 7, 8, 9, and beyond have not been designed. A step toward gradual normalization of diplomatic relations would belong about here. Similar to Vietnam, North Korea would be delighted to host a temporary Liaison Office for the United States in Pyongyang so that negotiations could occur daily. Full normalization of commercial relations would occur at the end of the road – after denuclearization.
So where is Washington while Pyongyang has been suggesting moves along a gradual Road Map? Although American negotiators have said that they are familiar with the Road Map used for Vietnam, they have not yet accepted the idea of gradual reciprocated moves on both sides to build confidence along the long path toward peace in the Korean peninsula.
At some point in a Road Map, the presence of American troops in South Korea will have to be balanced against dismantling non-nuclear military capabilities in the North. Full denuclearization, something that North Korea never wanted but developed in desperation to counter a possible attack by the United States, will help to set that agenda to build a lasting peace.
North Korea’s human rights problems are related to the fact that the country is not yet a developing economy. With peace in sight, Pyongyang would not need to lock up dissidents, an overly precautionary policy in light of domestic economic discontent and the fear that spies are mobilizing opposition. The issue of human rights should not be allowed to stop progress toward the greater goal of peace on the Korean peninsula.
Simultaneously with the new Road Map, North Korea and the United States could be expected to work together on such issues as the refugee crisis, terrorism, violent extremism, and world health. North Korea is no longer an isolated country but rather hosts embassies from 24 countries, including Britain and Germany, with lower-level diplomatic offices from France, South Korea, and Switzerland. Embassies located in China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam have personnel from 55 additional countries who are assigned to deal with North Korea, which can play a constructive role in the world community when matters of defense recede in priority.
In the past, Washington tried bullying Pyongyang, but that provoked nuclearization. Now is the time to take gradual steps, providing assurances to North Korea and the world that American diplomacy is on a new path toward genuine peace to remove the last relic of the Cold War.
Political Scientist Michael Haas, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is the author of the recent United States Diplomacy with North Korea and Vietnam, with a Foreword by former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.