The Trump administration wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons by 2020 after which it would get sanctions relief. Pyongyang insists on a phased and synchronized approach with incentives and concessions along the way. On paper, these are not entirely incompatible approaches.
In reality, however, nuclear weapons occupy too important a place in North Korea’s national security – as deterrent against attack, as bargaining chip, as shortcut to achieving strategic balance on the Korean peninsula – to be given up easily. Meanwhile, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is skeptical of any process that rewards North Korea for actions short of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).
The most likely post-Singapore scenario, then, is a protracted set of negotiations over the very terms of negotiations. The first (unsuccessful) step in this process took place in early July with Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang. If both sides can agree on terms, however, some hesitant moves toward denuclearization can follow.
Meanwhile, as Washington and Pyongyang negotiate their differences, the two Koreas can use this extended pause in hostilities to restart the slow-motion reunification of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun years. That means a resumption of direct links (hotline between capitals, direct marine radio communication), joint economic projects (tourism, Kaesong Industrial Zone), infrastructure coordination (inter-Korean rail), NGO initiatives (reforestation), and cultural exchanges.
The two sides are potentially going further. On the table are such proposals as pulling back long-range artillery pieces from the DMZ and establishing a Pyongyang bureau for the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Inter-Korean reconciliation depends at least in part on an ongoing détente between Washington and Pyongyang. That détente in turn requires at least the promise of denuclearization. As long as the United States and North Korea keep talking, the two Koreas can get on with the business of creating a more durable peace on the ground.
Nuclear disarmament is an important goal. But denuclearization was not one of the demands the United States made of China during the détente of the 1970s. Détente, however, ensured that China, once embedded in the international system and the global economy, would be considerably less likely to use nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, that should be the U.S. goal with North Korea as well. CVID may well be a chimera. But Washington and Seoul can engage Pyongyang in ways that make it less likely to use any of its weapons.
National Interest, July 20, 2018