The premise was that the U.S. would try to walk a narrow and difficult path between keeping pressure on Pyongyang, while simultaneously making concessions that would signal honest intent.
I suggested that relaxing restraints on South Korea’s freedom of maneuver was a plausible way of doing this, given the close coordination now taking place between Washington and Seoul on the issue.
But the President cannot sign on to another summit document that is entirely aspirational without facing political pushback. Before turning to what the U.S. could seek, we must first dissect detailed remarks recently made by Special Representative for North Korea Steven Biegun at Stanford; they provide more detail on U.S. policy than anything we have heard from the administration since the summit.
While hopeful with respect to the administration’s continued willingness to engage, Biegun’s comments also underlined how little has actually been accomplished.
Biegun on the state of play
By far the most significant revelation from Biegun’s remarks was a concession to reality: that negotiations will involve a series of incremental steps. More promising is the recognition that the entire Singapore summit agenda, including normalization of relations and a peace regime, could also be on the table at the same time, or as Biegun put it, “simultaneously and in parallel.”
Also in the plus column is the fact that the commitment to a second summit has finally unlocked long-stalled working-level talks with Biegun’s counterpart Kim Hyok Chol. These talks are the guts of the process: where agreements on technical details will be reached.
Yet the list of accomplishments to date is pretty thin. Biegun felt compelled to cycle through a number of issues—American detainees, the return of remains, the de facto freeze on nuclear and missile tests—that are little more than icebreakers.
As Biegun himself admitted, actions purportedly taken with respect to Tongchang-ri and Punggye-ri “are not critical parts of the current North Korean missile or nuclear programs.”
By far the most significant revelation from Biegun’s remarks was a concession to reality
North Korea’s declaration of a willingness to dismantle its two routes to fissile material—reprocessing and enrichment—can hardly be treated as a concession; it is foundational for any talks to take place at all.
What the U.S. might seek
We typically think of negotiations as involving quite precise trades. But Biegun underlined that while the U.S. will seek “deliverables” at the summit, he put equal weight on process: that negotiations in advance of the second meeting would yield “concrete deliverables, a roadmap of negotiations…a roadmap of negotiations and declarations going forward, and a shared understanding of the desired outcomes of our joint efforts.”
Biegun rightly admits that the U.S. and North Korea do not share a common conception of what the main goal of denuclearization even is, and that the U.S. conception needs to be fleshed out.
It is useful to divide possible trades along two dimensions.
The first is to simply identify the value-chain in the two industries of interest: the nuclear and intermediate and inter-continental missile programs. The steps in the nuclear fuel cycle include mining and milling of fuel rods; enrichment processes; reprocessing of spent fuel rods into plutonium; and bomb making and testing.
In addition, there are supporting segments at the front end, such as the manufacture of centrifuges, as well as the oversight of the reactors themselves.
The missile supply chain encompasses the manufacture (and import) of a wide array of intermediate goods (metals, fuels) and components (particularly engines and electronics) as well as final assembly, followed by testing and deployment.
A second dimension of any possible trades centers on whether the activities and their locations are even known. The intelligence and open source communities know some things, but other activities would require declarations and subsequent inspection and verification processes.
The natural focal point for concrete deliverables is Yongbyon
Given this complexity, and the host of both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” it could seem logical to seek a North Korean declaration of its programs.
While plausible, this idea has rightly faded and if it is resurrected it is likely to pertain to only some small portion of the two weapons complexes. The reasons are simple: a declaration without corresponding ability to challenge the regime through inspections—as under the IAEA additional protocol—would only serve to enshrine half-truths.
Given that an overarching declaration is unlikely, the next possibility would be some variant of a freeze. If the freeze were no more than a North Korean commitment to what they are already doing, it would rightly be seen as an abject failure.
A real freeze proposal would have to identify a segment of the two weapons programs and include some capacity to monitor the commitment, either through the IAEA or the concerned parties themselves. Yet we might expect the U.S. to seek a codified freeze—on production, testing, proliferation–if only as part of a wider road map.
The natural focal point for concrete deliverables is therefore Yongbyon. For those who watch North Korea, this sounds like “deja-vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra famously put it.
A “Yongbyon first” strategy was, after all, exactly the approach Christopher Hill pursued as George W. Bush’s chief negotiator in 2007-8. In addition to that discouraging history, such an approach has the disadvantage of postponing a wider declaration on sites outside of Yongbyon, which we are almost certain exist.
But this approach has the great advantage of focusing on a geographically-delimited space housing reasonably well-known facilities and with satellite imagery galore. Even if other sites exist, it is better to make progress at something than to hold out for a wider effort that would almost certainly be incomplete and impossible to verify.
And, ironically, focusing on slowing or capping the production of fissile material at this important site has precisely the advantage that it doesn’t force North Korea to give up stockpiles of fissile material and nuclear weapons, a move that the North Koreans have already rejected as entailing too much risk.
To the extent that adequate trust is built, an agreement about Yongbyon would provide a template that could be extended to other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, for example to mining or suspected enrichment sites.
Stockpiles of fissile material and actual bombs are very much more difficult and will of necessity come later in the process. And since storage of fissile material and bombs is likely to be widely dispersed, it is hard to have a high degree of confidence in the regime being forthcoming or opening up sites to inspection.
The most likely outcome will be a somewhat more detailed roadmap with some specifics on concepts and goals
But we should not underestimate our own intelligence capabilities, at least to within reasonable ranges. There are ample estimates in the public domain of the amount of fissile material and weapons that the North Koreans have likely produced.
Large discrepancies in those numbers would likely lead to breakdown in the processes which—by that time—would presumably be moving forward as a result of parallel U.S. concessions.
The missile conundrum is very much more complicated. North Korea’s long-range missile program is currently proscribed by UN Security Council resolutions because of the link to the country’s nuclear program.
Assuming that the nuclear weapons issues are being addressed, to what extent can the U.S. expect a fundamental rollback of North Korea’s missile program, particularly given the wide variety of systems and platforms in which Kim Jong Un has invested? In addition, there is the problem of addressing the massive missile-industrial complex, which is in mass production mode.
The logical step would appear to be a freeze in further production, testing, and deployment of weapons of a particular range, with perhaps a few specific weapons being publicly destroyed as a sign of good will.
But range limitations run up against the Japan problem: Trump may see a political win in claiming he has capped North Korea’s inter-continental ballistic missile program, but that move would likely be seen in Tokyo as throwing the Abe administration under the bus.
Conclusion: the ticking clock problem
Despite the optimism with which Biegun made the administration’s case, the intelligence committee’s assessment last month has to stand as a reasonable guess of the likelihood of success.
Yet cynicism about the negotiations carries its own risks, and prejudging a process that has not even started yet would be a mistake. Nonetheless, the administration once again has painted itself into a corner by moving quickly for a foreign policy win without adequate preparation.
The most likely outcome will be a somewhat more detailed roadmap with some specifics on concepts and goals, including hortatory statements on normalizing relations, ultimate lifting of sanctions, and a peace regime.
But let’s not kid ourselves: the real work on a North Korean deal is only beginning, and promises to be much more phased than the Iranian agreement.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps
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