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OPINION

Why N. Korean nukes are still on the table

By ADAM TAYLOR | The Washington Post | Published: August 14, 2018

After a flurry of diplomatic action a little earlier this year, the issue of North Korea and its nuclear weapons was largely relegated to the background in recent weeks. But that isn’t likely to last much longer.

On Monday, the two Koreas announced that their leaders, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in, will meet next month. It will be the third meeting between the two men, and it should come amid a busy month of diplomatic events.

North Korea is planning to host a birthday celebration on Sept. 9, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which Chinese President Xi Jinping might attend. Two days later, Russia will host the Eastern Economic Forum in the nearby city of Vladivostok — possible attendees include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and, potentially, Kim.

Then there’s the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York the following week. Many have speculated that Kim could make an appearance.

Will all this diplomatic action change anything? Perhaps — but don’t hold your breath.

After all, the core of ongoing U.S.-North Korea negotiations is not meetings but denuclearization, and there has been little progress on that front since President Donald Trump met Kim in Singapore on June 12. Even Trump administration staffers now acknowledge things are going too slowly: National security adviser John Bolton said last week that “North Korea has not taken the steps we feel are necessary to denuclearize.”

Fox & Friends First tweeted “ “There is no one in this administration that is starry-eyed about the prospects of North Korea actually denuclearizing” — National Security Advisor John Bolton addresses the latest on negotiations with North Korea. Thoughts?”

North Korea has taken some small conciliatory steps, including the apparent dismantling of a satellite-launch site last month. But those acts have been of questionable value to North Korea’s weapons program. And they took place without outside experts present.

None of this is surprising. The joint statement Trump and Kim released in Singapore had little detail, with North Korea only vaguely agreeing to work “toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The details of private negotiations may be less reassuring still: According to Vox’s Alex Ward, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Pyongyang to unilaterally give up between 60 percent and 70 percent of its nuclear weapons — a demand that is short of full denuclearization and still clearly unacceptable to North Korea.

Given the circumstances, some analysts now argue that getting North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons is simply impossible. As North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov recently quoted an unnamed contact in Washington as saying, “The North Koreans have quietly succeeded in changing the general paradigm of negotiations: While, on paper, negotiations are still about the denuclearization, in practice, talks are now about arms control.”

Meetings between Kim and various world leaders are unlikely to have any effect, either. South Korea’s Moon may have Kim’s ear on some matters, but he has little sway on nuclear issues. Officials in Seoul have made clear they don’t see nuclear weapons as part of their remit; they are focused on economic cooperation with North Korea and finally achieving a formal end to the Korean War.

Elsewhere, Japan’s Abe has no leverage over Kim. Putin and Xi may have more clout, but they are not as worried about a nuclear North Korea — and, given the state of their own relations with Washington, they have good reason to undermine Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions policy.

Even another Trump-Kim summit probably wouldn’t bring immediate progress. North Korea has skillfully driven a wedge between Trump and his administration, wooing the president with grand gestures while criticizing officials such as Pompeo who must work out the details.

And by meeting Kim again, Trump would probably be handing him a lasting victory. “If Trump meets Kim again without first securing tangible progress on denuclearization, then he effectively will be recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state,” wrote Ryan Hass, a former U.S. diplomat and current fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Vipin Narang tweeted “I would say North Korea wants more like the India deal: explicitly declare oneself a nuclear weapons power outside of the NPT and then work toward being accepted as a responsible, legitimate, and normalized nuclear weapons power. Not amimut. But either way, yep.”

For all of this, the goal of a nuclear-free North Korea is not completely dead, but it will certainly require some resuscitation.

To do that, U.S. negotiators will need patience. After Pompeo visited Pyongyang last month, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry released a statement suggesting that it sees the ongoing talks with the United States as a step-by-step process, with actual denuclearization coming only at the end.

The question now is finding the right step to take next. In Foreign Affairs, Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang suggested the United States should push North Korea to disclose the full extent of its nuclear weapons, its ballistic missiles and the facilities associated with them, then work toward a cap on production.

Meanwhile, the head of a body that oversees a global ban on nuclear testing has called on Pyongyang to let his inspectors in. “Verification is what brings trust,” Lassina Zerbo, of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, said to The Wall Street Journal.

In exchange for such gestures, the United States might offer some sanctions relief for North Korea. That move would be especially welcome in South Korea, where many are growing angry about the restrictions blocking further inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Such ideas are a tough sell for an administration that has already celebrated North Korean denuclearization as a fait accompli — and for which sanctions are an increasingly common foreign-policy bludgeon. But for now, easy options — or even good ones — seem hard to come by.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.

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