A denuclearization deal with North Korea is more within reach than anyone could have thought possible a very short time ago. Thanks to the tireless diplomatic work of Moon Jae In of South Korea and the unexpectedly adept diplomatic work of Kim Jong Un of North Korea, a joint statement between North Korea and the United States exists and the impossible is suddenly under way.
Those who dismiss the the joint agreement as vague and vacuous and light on detail forget how far the language of the joint declaration has traveled since Trump’s first "fire and fury like the world has never seen" attempt at diplomacy. They also commit the error of comparing the joint statement to history’s final agreements rather than to other first meetings. The diplomacy may also have more content than the joint statement reveals, since some steps seem to have been negotiated that have not yet been made public.
The blueprint for any eventual nuclear deal has long been clear. In fact, thanks to recent revelations by Joel S. Wit who worked on the Agreed Framework with North Korea and who was one of a very few people to take part in informal meetings with North Korean officials in 2013, it is now known that that blueprint has been seriously laid out on the workbench for much longer than anyone thought.
Wit says that Kim Jong UN always intended North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a deterrent against American bullying and aggression. As early as June of 2013, North Korea’s National Defense Commission declared that it was willing to negotiate denuclearization. The National Defense Commission is chaired by Kim Jong UN himself. And as early as 2013, the formula was clear: North Korea would erase its nuclear weapons program in exchange for U.S. guarantees that it would cease its "hostile policy" of political, economic and security threats.
That original 2013 formula – elimination of the nuclear deterrence contingent on elimination of the need for deterrence – has been repeated unbroken since then. North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador Kim In-Ryong put it this way to UN Secretary-General António Guterres in August of 2017: “As long as the US hostile policy and nuclear threat continue, the DPRK, no matter who may say what, will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table.” Ju Yong Chol, a North Korean diplomat, expressed the formulation exactly the same way.
The same conditional North Korean formulation was expressed by Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho in August of 2017. RI said “We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table. . . . unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the US against the D.P.R.K. are fundamentally eliminated.” The next month, RI Yong-ho explained to the UN that its nuclear program is “to all intents and purposes, a war deterrent for putting an end to nuclear threat of the US and for preventing its military invasion, and our ultimate goal is to establish the balance of power with the US”
Most importantly, Kim Jong UN, himself, has also expressed this conditional formulation. Kim has stated that “Our final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the US and make the US rulers dare not talk about military options.”
So, the blueprint for successful nuclear negotiations has long been clear. There are three criteria: verifying that North Korea has dismantled its nuclear weapons program, security guarantees that ensure the end of America’s hostile policy toward North Korea, and the willingness of an American administration to listen to the North Korean conditional formulation and to engage in dialogue with North Korea.
But the really hard part is not making the deal, it is not breaking the deal. And the three criteria for making it are precisely the three landmines that could break it.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was dismissive and critical of the joint statement because he argued that the agreement was asymmetrical: "What the United States has gained is vague and unverifiable at best. What North Korea has gained, however, is tangible and lasting." By what is "tangible," Schumer might have meant "international legitimacy." But, Schumer gets the asymmetry almost impossibly backwards. The main thing the US gave North Korea is a commitment "to provide security guarantees"; the main thing North Korea promised was to "work towards complete denuclearization." The North Korean promise is very specific and entirely verifiable; the American promise is "vague and unverifiable."
The first of the three elements of the nuclear negotiation formula is that North Korea will eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Nuclear disarmament is entirely verifiable by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The obstacle to this element is the lesson North Korea has surely learned from Iran’s experience at nuclear deal making with Trump. How do you force the other side to keep their end of the deal, if you are keeping your end of the deal, if independent verification is insufficient to verify that you are?
America was bound to continue to honor the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran as long as Iran was verified to be in compliance with their end of the deal. But, after eleven uninterrupted IAEA reports confirming that Iran was fully complying with their obligations under the agreement, Donald Trump reneged on America’s commitment and pulled out of the deal.
So, how can North Korea trust that the US will honor the verification process and agree to eliminate its nuclear weapons? That is the first landmine that could kill the deal.
The second potential landmine is the American commitment to provide security guarantees. How do you verify a promise not to act with hostility? Once you give up your nuclear weapons, it takes a very long time to get them back, if you can get them back at all. But a promise not to be hostile is hard to enforce and easy to break.
Again, the lesson learned from Iran must be pounding in Korean ears. The North Korean formula was clear that American hostility could take an economic, as well as a security, form. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 13 that the US would lift the sanctions on North Korea in exchange for North Korea completely dismantling its nuclear weapons program. He promised "peace and prosperity" if North Korea "denuclearized." But when the US promised to soften economic hostility against Iran in return for Iran’s denuclearization commitments, the pulse of the promised sanction relief was very hard to find. America not only failed to fulfill its sanctions promise, it also made it very difficult for the rest of the world to fulfill theirs.
And the lesson comes not only from Iran. North Korea can draw on its own experience. The 2005 nuclear agreement between North Korea and the US fell apart in part because the US undertook what Noam Chomsky, in What We Say Goes, called "economic warfare."
And the lesson is not just in economics but in security as well. The Agreed Framework of 1994 included assurances not unlike the present ones: America would stop threatening North Korea. But then George W. Bush admitted North Korea into the Axis of Evil along with Iran and Iraq. It then invaded Iraq. And in 2002 the US explicitly named North Korea in its nuclear posture review as a country it should be prepared to drop a nuclear bomb on.
America’s past history of violating its security assurances is what made National Security Advisor John Bolton’s suggestion that the best model for North Korean denuclearization was the Libyan model – the model that saw Libya attacked and Gadhafi murdered – so threatening and upsetting to North Korea.
It might also seem concerning that Kim Jong UN put it in writing in the joint statement that he "commits to work towards complete denuclearization," while Trump, though vaguely committing in the preamble "to provide security guarantees" committed to no specifics. None of the four points in the statement address American security guarantees to North Korea with Trump announcing only after the announcement, and not in writing, that America would end American-South Korean war games. However, this concern was toned down by historian and expert on US-North Korean nuclear diplomacy Leon Sigal who told me in a correspondence that "Not everything needs to be put into writing. . .. The issue is not what was said in the joint statement but whether both sides will do what they say." Though, he added that the expectation is that "as we moved forward, a roadmap and verification protocol will be clearly spelled out in writing to avoid ambiguity that can be exploited by one side or the other and turn into a stumbling block."
So, that is the second potential landmine. How does North Korea ensure that the U.S. will honor its security guarantees and, so, be confident they can eliminate their deterrent?
In September 2017, Jimmy Carter said that the US should engage directly with Kim Jong Un. “I would send my top person to Pyongyang immediately, if I didn’t go myself,” Carter said. That was Trump’s contribution to all the work done by North and South Korean diplomats: he was willing to talk directly to Kim Jong UN
But if the first two landmines lie in Pyongyang, the third lies in Washington. Because there are forces in Washington that don’t want Trump to talk to Kim and who don’t want nuclear negotiations to work.
These forces are willing to sacrifice a denuclearized North Korea because in their geopolitical game, North Korea is not the king, but a pawn. The king is China.
Ending the Korean war means ending arms contracts. There is a lot of money to be made defending South Korea from a nuclear threat from the North. Gareth Porter has argued that funding for "a very expensive national missile defense system" has played a role in killing previous US-North Korea nuclear agreements.
But the even bigger reason is China. A nuclear agreement with North Korea means a threat reduction on the Korean peninsula. But that threat provides the rational for US troops in the region. And troops in the region are an important part of America’s pivot to Asia, which is a euphemism for America’s posture against China.
A crucial part of America’s overall foreign policy posture is the prevention of the rise of any country that threatens American hegemony. As early as 1992, the Wolfowitz Doctrine clearly stated the goal of American foreign policy as preventing "any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power." In other words, American foreign policy is focussed on preserving American hegemony and preventing the rise of any country that threatens it. Obama’s pivot to Asia represented the recognition that the focus of that policy was China. In October 2011, Secretary of State Clinton said China was that rising challenge and defined it as a threat. Meeting that threat meant containing China, and containing China meant building up military bases in East Asia and firming up alliances with Asian allies like South Korea.
Reese Erlich reports that Christine Ahn, co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute, told him that US troops in South Korea are not a defensive force. They are a projection of "US power in the region aimed at challenging China and making sure pro-U.S. regional governments stay in power. . .. The bases insure US political, military and economic interests."
Peace with North Korea threatens that strategy, and to some in Washington, that foreign policy priority takes precedent over denuclearizing North Korea: the Chinese threat to American hegemony looms larger than the nuclear threat from North Korea.
These then are the three possible landmines that could kill the North Korea nuclear deal. The blueprint for a successful deal includes verifying that North Korea has dismantled its nuclear weapons program, security guarantees that ensure the end of America’s hostile policy toward North Korea, and the willingness of an American administration to listen to the North Korean conditional formulation and to engage in dialogue with North Korea. And those are precisely the three things that could kill it. America has an untrustworthy history of verifying the other nation’s compliance with their side of an agreement and an equally untrustworthy history of complying with theirs. And there are powerful forces in Washington that don’t even want America and North Korea to reach an agreement.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.