On March 9, 2018, US President Donald Trump accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s offer to meet some time in May. If the first meeting between the sitting leaders of the United States and North Korea yields meaningful progress towards denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, we will undoubtedly witness one of the watershed moments in world history in just a couple of months.
Understandably, expectations and hopes are brewing in several involved countries. If anything, the recent thaw in United States-North Korea relations is a welcome change of pace after months of saber-rattling that saw phrases like “rocket man” and “dotard” thrown around while Kim Jong Un and President Trump bragged about their respective “nuclear buttons.”
True, according to the South Korean delegation that met Kim and President Trump, the North Korean leader did in fact say North Korea is committed to denuclearization if the United States can ensure North Korea’s security and remove military threats. That is a massive if.
Concerns about a denuclearization and security deal raised in a 2003 Brooking Institute article still remain valid today. The “if” can be divided into two parts. The first part requires the United States to ensure North Korea’s security. Conceivably, this would mean something like a mutual non-aggression pact, which the rogue regime has already demanded once before in 2003, before it carried out its first nuclear weapon test in 2006. Fast-forward a decade to 2013; then-US Secretary of State John Kerry made a US non-aggression offer in exchange for North Korean denuclearization. This offer was swiftly rejected by North Korea. Is the United States prepared to make the same offer again, and will North Korea actually accept the offer this time?
More importantly, Pyongyang’s forfeiture of its entire nuclear weapons program for Washington’s mere announcement of its intent would be, to say the least, heavily tilted in Washington’s favor. This trade-off was imbalanced even in 2003 when North Korea was a nuclear hopeful. At that time, Pyongyang was unwilling to give up its nuclear capabilities or allow external verification, so why would it accept the same deal in 2018, after it has completed six nuclear weapons tests? Does Kim Jong Un really trust President Trump enough to trade in his nuclear arsenal for a US promise of nonaggression? The situation surrounding North Korea is too complex to draw conclusive parallels from history, but, there is much to be skeptical about in Pyongyang’s sudden foreign policy shift.
The second part of the “if” requires removal of military threats against North Korea. Reaching an agreement on what exactly constitute “removal” and “military threats” is a difficult enough task already. Why would Washington even consider removing its military presence in South Korea and Japan for an unlikely shot at denuclearizing North Korea? Pyongyang still commands a formidable conventional force whose threat perpetually hangs over Seoul and its 25 million inhabitants. Denuclearization does not touch any of North Korea’s conventional capabilities. It would be absurd to think that the United States would consider massively scaling back its presence from Northeast Asia without a similar decrease in conventional capabilities from Pyongyang. North Korea’s conventional capabilities were not discussed between Kim Jong Un and the South Korean envoys.
In the best-case scenario, Kim, President Trump and President Moon would be able to work out a viable denuclearization deal. However, this is just that, the best-case scenario. In 1994, the United States and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for energy assistance, nuclear reactors that could only be used for power generation, and potential diplomatic normalization with the United States. The pact fell apart, partly due to a US policy shift when George W. Bush came into office, but also because North Korea got caught enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.
Despite reasons to be skeptical, there is no denying that the thaw in inter-Korean, and United States-North Korea relations is a welcome break for all involved parties, maybe with the exception of Japan, which fears being relegated to playing the bystander. Even if nothing meaningful comes out of the summits, and the world returns to the status quo, the summit would give both Koreans and Americans a rare opportunity to study Kim Jong Un in person.
However, the allies should also be prepared for a future in which the status quo continues, because even if a denuclearization deal is reached, projects like scaling back of the US Forces Korea and a nonaggression pact will take months to clear domestic political processes. North Korea knows the political timetables such projects require, and Pyongyang will be in no rush to denuclearize. Clearly, the Trump-Kim summit represents progress in United States-North Korea relations. Whether the summit will live up to its hype and become a true breakthrough is not as clear; the world needs to hold its horses of optimism for now.