The recent news that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ready to discuss denuclearization during his upcoming summit with President Donald Trump could not have come at a better time for the White House. Given recent headlines about corruption, scandals and cover-ups, the White House can take all the good news it can get, particularly on such a complex national security challenge.
As administration officials have said repeatedly, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the ultimate goal of its “maximum pressure” campaign, and now, according to White House leaks, Kim is ready to discuss exactly such a scenario. So we can all breathe a heavy sigh of relief, right?
If only it were that easy. Before we break out the bottles of soju and dare to imagine an end to this crisis, it’s worth remembering that denuclearization means something very different to North Korea than it does to the United States. And that difference in definitions could end up as a real flash point in any high-level negotiations.
Before we break out the soju, it’s worth remembering that denuclearization means something very different to North Korea than it does to the United States.
As most American officials (and likely Trump) use the term, denuclearization has long meant North Korea unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons program, dismantling all of its strategic nuclear facilities and participating in an international verification system to ensure that it does not cheat. In this scenario, the United States gets everything it wants, while the rest of the security arrangements on the peninsula remain unchanged.
The problem with this scenario is that North Korea has gone to great lengths to develop its nuclear weapons program, making it highly unlikely that it would cede that program so easily. Neither Kim Il Sung nor Kim Jong Il were prepared to do so during previous discussions. And given that Kim Jong Un has only accelerated the development of his nuclear and missile programs since taking power, it is a safe bet that he will be similarly protective of what he has achieved.
A far more likely scenario is that in exchange for such a significant concession, Kim will demand a number of reciprocal steps from the United States, steps that would align much more closely with his definition of denuclearization.
Recall that the likely purpose of Kim’s nuclear weapons program is to guarantee his own longevity in power by ensuring that the United States would never attack him pre-emptively. Consequently, for him to agree to give up his nukes, he would need some other mechanism to ensure the same outcome and job security. And his preferred mechanism is almost certainly the dismantlement of the entire security architecture that the United States has built in East Asia since the end of World War II.
Such architecture includes, among other things, the presence of almost 63,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan, regular joint military exercises with both countries, strategic alliances with both countries, and most of important of all, the extension of the U.S. nuclear security umbrella over both countries. To Kim, denuclearization means getting rid of all of this. This is what it meant to his father and grandfather and this is what it will mean to him.
But how do we know that this is actually what Kim wants? After all, I argued just a few weeks ago that Kim is neither his father nor his grandfather and that he will have a different negotiating strategy based on his education and exposure to the western world. While I still believe this is likely true, we know what Kim wants from these negotiations because this is also what China wants. Truthfully, this is what China has wanted for several decades now. And we all watched in late March as Kim went to Beijing to receive his marching orders before he could partake in any summits with the United States or South Korea.
By dangling the ultimate carrot in front of the United States so early in the process, Kim is clearly trying to entice the Americans into giving him what he and Xi want.
The timing of Kim’s visit to Beijing, his first publicly-acknowledged trip abroad since taking power, was no accident. Chinese President Xi Jinping no doubt saw North Korea’s interaction with South Korea and the United States quickly slipping out of his control. With Kim’s Olympic charm offensive, followed by the rapid-fire announcements of summits with both South Korea and the United States, China’s role and relevance were being openly questioned. Sensing that his own national security interests were at stake, Xi reasserted control by calling Kim in. If there were any clear messages to be taken from the Xi-Kim meeting, it was that Kim will do Xi’s bidding, and that despite what Trump or new national security advisor John Bolton may think, all roads to Pyongyang run through Beijing.
In this context, Kim’s offer to discuss denuclearization, if true, is undoubtedly an opening gambit in a long and protracted set of negotiations. By dangling the ultimate carrot in front of the United States so early in the process, Kim is clearly trying to entice the Americans into giving him what he and Xi want.
Despite these dueling definitions of denuclearization, the hope of striking some sort of grand bargain is not completely dead. After all, this will be a negotiation. But to get to a deal, the United States will most certainly have to make some concessions, ones that go significantly beyond symbolic gestures and offers of food and fuel assistance, which have characterized previous agreements with North Korea.
Obviously, the United States will have to think carefully about these concessions because the stakes here are enormous. Dismantling the security architecture in the region in exchange for nuclear disarmament by the North is a trade that no previous U.S. administration found serious or worthwhile. And you would still be hard-pressed to find anyone who to argue in favor of it.
Lastly, any final deal will necessarily have to include North Korea subjecting itself to international nuclear safeguards and verification. Given North Korea’s track record of violating previous agreements and the serious implications of such violations, there can be no other option. Kim has thus far proven to be a shrewd interlocutor, but it remains to be seen if he is trustworthy. And until he proves he is, the United States should take no chances.
Anish Goel is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at New America. He previously served in the White House's National Security Council as senior director for South Asia, and in the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee as professional staff for Asia-Pacific.