It has been surprising to see how many American commentators are throwing cold water on the Trump initiative to meet with Kim Jong Un.
We should certainly be cautious: the U.S. President is giving Kim an international statesman profile he doesn’t deserve, the administration will give away too much—or too little—and above all, the staffing and parameters to tackle such a complex undertaking are simply not in place.
But all of these reservations aside, it is important to state the obvious: the fact that South Korean envoys Chung Eui-yong and Suh Hoon carried a personal message from Kim Jong Un that he was willing to commit to denuclearization is a good thing.
That said, there is now a lot of work to do and there is legitimate concern about who is going to do it. In a background call, a senior administration official said that “at this point, we’re not even talking about negotiations.”
The only meaningful outcome that could come out of a summit would be a commitment to some roadmap of negotiations: two-party, four-party, six-party, or some combination of the three.
It is therefore extremely important to start thinking about what the broad parameters of those talks might look like.
In one regard, the best substantive template is the Joint Statement of September 2005, perhaps stripped of some particular commitments such as light-water reactors.
The basic deal on offer then was one that committed North Korea to denuclearization and the United States to a number of political assurances and guarantees.
These included a commitment to abide by the principles of the UN Charter, “to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies,” and ultimately to replace the armistice with a peace regime. The Joint Statement also included some general promises of assistance as well as some quite specific commitments on the provision of energy.
There is now a lot of work to do and there is legitimate concern about who is going to do it
In broad terms, such trades will be the core of any agreement with Kim Jong Un as well. But there is one feature of the Joint Statement that the U.S. should avoid at all cost, and it came in an apparently innocuous passage at the end of the 2005 document: that the Six Parties agreed to take coordinated steps to implement the afore-mentioned consensus “in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action.’”
To return to this particular way of moving forward would be a mistake for two reasons. First, unless Kim Jong Un has had a genuine epiphany—which there is no way we can know—the only plausible reason he is coming back to the negotiating table is because the sanctions regime is finally having material effect.
The fact that Kim Jong Un accepted a resumption of the exercises and made mention of the desire to meet as soon as possible all underline that bargaining power is on the side of the Trump administration.
But if we return to a negotiating approach where a cooling tower is blown up for some oil shipments, we will never get to a final settlement. The reasons are two, and Marc Noland and I spell them out in some detail in the Introduction to our 2017 book “Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements and the Case of North Korea.”
The first has to do with the logic of incremental negotiations. The commitment for commitment, action for action framework is like Zeno’s paradox. The negotiations have to get halfway to the finish line, and then halfway from there to the finish line and so on, with the result that the end state never gets reached.
North Korean negotiators are masters at narrowing the scope of commitments in ways that have a delaying effect.
The second problem is that incrementalism will open the door to a gradual erosion of the sanctions regime. China has to some extent boxed itself in by making its sanctions commitment multilateral and also repeating that it is committed only to those multilateral sanctions.
If negotiations start with the assumption that “trust building” requires short-term payments for interim actions—for example, by China relaxing pressure—Kim Jong Un will buy breathing room and we will quickly be back at square one.
The only alternative is for President Trump—quite ironically given his criticism of it—to carry a model to the summit that looks a lot more like the Iran deal.
Whatever we think of its terms, it had one striking feature that was quite at odds with past negotiations with North Korea: that full sanctions relief—or at least what was promised through the JCPOA itself—only came when Iran had come into compliance with virtually all of the core commitments in the agreement with respect to its nuclear weapons program.
North Korean negotiators are masters at narrowing the scope of commitments
How does this suggest the administration should be thinking about the issue? Although the details are complex, the basic model is actually simple: there needs to be a comprehensive deal put on the table that not only addresses the interests of all parties, but that will come online when all components of it are nailed down and ready for launch.
The reason for this approach is not just the tactical ones just outlined. It is strategic: the five parties have never before had the degree of leverage that they currently have over North Korea.
If it is squandered by considering tightly coupled quid-pro-quos, we will quickly fall down the Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole of never-ending negotiations.
Trump claims that he is bold and a master of the art of the deal. If so, now is the time to finally show those skills by making an expansive offer that Kim Jong Un cannot refuse. This approach will clearly have to be negotiated.
But it can’t be sliced and diced out of existence, the fate of the last effort to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea in 2007-8.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: KCNA, Wikimedia Commons, edited by NK News