This author spent the last week in Washington DC, and one thing now seems clear: a deal with North Korea is, at last, in the works. Working-level talks are about to begin, and its participants (as well as their bosses) are optimistic about success and certain that in the near future they will be able to forge a compromise on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Outside observers do not necessarily share the diplomats’ enthusiasm: many obstacles remain, they say, and a deal, while clearly possible, is by no means a sure thing. But even the skeptics believe that this time success is likely, not least because in both the United States and North Korea, the top leaders have valid domestic reasons to forge an agreement.
Of course, we are not talking about what is known as the “big deal,” that is, the oft-repeated CVID or “Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization” of North Korea.
Last year this Holy Grail was rechristened ‘Final, Fully Verified Denuclearization’ (FFVD), but even after this nice change of name the officially-declared goal of U.S. policy remains every bit as unrealistic and unattainable as before. No matter what, North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons, and this sorry fact of life is slowly being grasped (but not openly admitted) in Washington.
So, instead of chasing the impossible, diplomats are now hoping to achieve a more realistic “small deal.” This agreement will see a partial freeze/dismantlement of some North Korean nuclear facilities in exchange for a multitude of economic and political concessions, with partial relief of the UN-introduced “sectoral sanctions” being the most important of all.
North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons, and this sorry fact of life is slowly being grasped in Washington
Most likely, it will be presented to the public as merely the “first step on the long road towards full denuclearization,” but this face-saving rhetoric should not be taken too seriously: this deal will be about arms’ control, not about disarmament.
FRIENDS OF THE ‘SMALL DEAL’
Who needs this deal? Above all, it’s Donald Trump and his campaign team. President Trump has been criticized for his inability to deliver on many of his campaign promises (where is the Great American Wall, after all?).
He needs to demonstrate that, at least in regard to North Korea, things are going in the right direction under his wise leadership.
It’s not clear to what extent President Trump has come to realize that his initial promise of a CVID/FFVD miracle is essentially undeliverable: a non-nuclear North Korea is not going to be possible, no matter what, in the foreseeable future.
But irrespective of what he actually thinks about the prospect of full denuclearization, right now the soon-to-be Candidate Trump needs some claimable success.
In this climate, a deal with North Korea is highly desirable. Of course, Donald Trump would be satisfied if the North Koreans simply continue to remain quiet and stick to their moratorium on nuclear and missile tests until after the coming U.S. elections. But a nice deal would be even better.
Kim Jong Un also has domestic reasons to deliver a deal as soon as possible. A multitude of well-informed sources tell this author what is also partially-supported by a careful reading of official state publications: an unusually-heated debate is going on inside North Korea’s leadership.
A small deal will be good for both countries and for the world at large
Sources talk of growing discontent among North Korea’s élite, greatly disappointed when Kim Jong Un did not secure sanctions relief at February’s disastrous Hanoi summit. Some even said that Kim Jong Un risked being misled or cheated by the cunning Americans, and that the talks were a bad idea from the start.
Therefore, Kim Jong Un also needs to produce something to placate the discontented officials and generals, to show them that he is not going to surrender their long-cherished “mighty sword,” the only guarantee of their system and their state’s survival, in exchange for empty promises. He will also welcome sanctions relief, no matter how short-lived and how partial. In short, he also needs a deal.
Both countries’ leaders, then, have good reason to accept a small deal in order to strengthen their own power.
However, this cynical observation should not be misinterpreted. The fact that top leaders want this deal — largely because of their own personal or vested interests — does not mean that it is a bad one.
On the contrary, at the end of the day, a small deal will be good for both countries and for the world at large, and it helps that the public interest seemingly coincides with interests of these two powerful individuals.
A FLAWED DEAL, BUT BETTER THAN ANY OTHER
A small deal has its bitter and committed enemies, of whom we will talk a bit later. But those who care about the future of Korea should welcome what will represent an imperfect compromise, in spite of its obvious flaws and serious shortcomings (every adult understands that compromises always come with flaws and shortcomings).
The major problem with a small deal is that this compromise will leave a significant part of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile-manufacturing capabilities intact.
In a worst-case scenario, it will barely make any impact on the country’s nuclear capabilities, simply leading to a temporary freeze in development. In short, North Korea will remain nuclear power – as it has been for nearly 15 years.
On top of that, there is no way to guarantee that the deal will last. North Korea has a track record of walking away from agreements and renegading on its promises. The U.S. track record is not perfect either.
But one has to understand that the real choice nowadays is not between the imperfect compromise of a “small deal” and the Holy Grail of denuclearization.
Those who care about the future of Korea should welcome what will represent an imperfect compromise
Full denuclearization is a pipe dream, and this fact is beginning to dawn even within the Belt Way, whose inhabitants have long been oblivious to the obvious.
Even they have begun to understand that neither saber-rattling nor promises of riches from condominiums on Wonsan beach will produce any tangible results.
The actual choice is much less pleasant: between a “small deal,” which, however imperfect, will slow down or even temporarily reverse the advance of the North Korean nuclear and missile program, and “no deal.”
The latter option would see the North Korean nuclear program continue with impressive speed, making the country even more dangerous and the situation increasingly unstable.
If a “small deal” is made, the advance of the North Korean nuclear and missile program will be delayed, for the time being at least. It’s better than nothing, and while attempts to reject the deal in order to pursue the unachievable CVID/FFVD dream might appear attractive at first glance, they are actually more dangerous.
Not everyone understands this, however. A “small deal” has its enemies, some of whom are driven by idealism, some by their own vested interests.
ENEMIES OF THE DEAL
There are at least three political factions who oppose the deal. First, the deal is opposed by U.S. hardliners, whose major representative is uber-hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton has been known for his uncompromising attitude to the nuclear issue, and his battle cry is clear: “all or nothing.”
John Bolton is a man of deep and sincere convictions and, most likely, really believes in what he is saying and doing – a rare quality for a high-level politician. The problem is, however, that “all or nothing” policy will not get “all.” At the end of the day, it will get “nothing.”
However, given the skills of John Bolton, his fighting spirit, and high position in the Washington bureaucracy, one cannot rule out that his attempts to sink the small deal will succeed.
The second group of “small deal” opponents are the Democrats who, to an extent, will reject the deal because it is coming from a president they passionately despise.
Ultimately, they (correctly) see the current line of the Trump administration as not merely self-serving, but also based on double standards.
Indeed, President Trump rejected a partial deal with Iran, alleging that it was a bad deal, and now he is likely to begin promoting a similar but, arguably, even more problematic deal with North Korea. The Democrats see it as an example of double standards — and they are probably right.
But they overlook one simple fact. Had both the Iran and North Korean deals been successfully implemented, they would have mitigated two problems related to nuclear proliferation.
Now, with the Iran deal rejected by the Trump administration, the North Korean deal will mitigate just one problem, instead of two.
If the Democrats – or whoever else – successfully sink a compromise with North Korea and send it the way of the Iran agreement, the world will have to deal with two unmitigated nuclear problems.
The third group of opponents are South Korean conservatives, who believe that a small deal and a partial compromise will be the first step down a slippery slope.
It seems that the U.S. side is concerned about the reversibility of any concessions which Washington is likely to promise
They believe that such a deal will be followed by a formal peace treaty between the United States and North Korea, and that such a treaty will then be used to justify the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula, which, in turn, will mean the de facto end of the U.S.-ROK Alliance.
For the conservatives, this nightmare scenario, which they take very seriously, is a recipe for a geopolitical disaster. They are likely to oppose any kind of agreement, using all the connections and influence they can muster – and they have some connections in Washington.
The above-mentioned nightmare scenario is, needless to say, a fantasy. A small deal will not necessarily lead to a peace treaty, and a peace treaty, in all probability, will not result in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea.
This scenario has serious flaws, and I cannot help but be surprised why so many intelligent people take these scare stories seriously.
Some, perhaps, like U.S. Democrats, merely use this story as a useful tool to undermine the positions of the hated Moon administration, but many believe that a “small deal” will trigger a disastrous unfolding of events which will lead, ultimately, to the demise of South Korean democracy.
WHAT A GOOD DEAL WOULD LOOK LIKE
When we talk about a deal, there are a number of complicated and important questions. The most significant of these questions is the technical one: what parts of the nuclear and missile production complex will the North Koreans have to sacrifice? And what are they going to get in return?
From my recent discussions in Washington, it seems that the U.S. side is concerned about the reversibility of any concessions which Washington is likely to promise. Of course, the U.S. can approve the removal of the sectoral sanctions, introduced by the UN Security Council between 2016-17.
Since these sanctions have slowed down or even arrested the economic growth of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, who needs development, among other things, to maintain control and stability, badly wants them to be removed.
So what will happen if the North Koreans eventually walk away from the deal, as they are indeed likely to do sooner or later?
Short of truly exceptional circumstances, one can be certain that China and Russia will not support the reintroduction of tough sanctions at the Security Council. Once removed, the UN-led sanctions will be impossible to reimpose.
Therefore, many people in the U.S. are not contemplating the formal removal of sanctions, but a provisional suspension of the sanctions regime – for, say, a period of 12, or 18, or 24 months. Technically, the UN-approved sanctions will remain in place, and the halt will be conditional and have a clearly-marked “expiration date.”
This will make things easier for the Americans, but worse for the North Koreans. Pyongyang will, understandably, be very reluctant to swap something irreversible (like the dismantlement of uranium-producing centrifuges) for something which is not only reversible but is, essentially, pre-programmed to be reversed within a short period of time.
There is one way to ameliorate this problem. If the U.S. side insists on the reversibility of sanctions, the North Korean side is likely to respond with an offer of equally reversible concessions.
Instead of dismantling the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and elsewhere, they may merely agree to mothball them, switching the equipment off and letting foreign monitors in to examine the facilities.
Such measures are reversible and in the past, we have seen how easy it is for the North Koreans to restart a program they once declared discontinued, and how little a problem they would have in kicking international inspectors out.
A far more preferable compromise would be a deal which would be irreversible for both sides
Therefore, if a “small deal” will only see the mothballing of some North Korean nuclear facilities in exchange for a suspension of some UN-led sanctions for a limited period of time, one wonders whether such a limited and doomed deal makes much sense.
It is still preferable to nothing, but its major achievement will be merely to provide some ammunition for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and strengthen Kim Jong Un’s position vis-à-vis conservatives and, more generally, discontented elites.
A far more preferable compromise would be a deal which would be irreversible for both sides. But in this case, the keyword is “both.” Such a deal will imply that the North Koreans will physically destroy a significant part of their existing equipment.
There is little doubt that a lot of equipment will be hidden and preserved, so the entire operation will merely limit their research and manufacturing capabilities. Nonetheless, as we have argued above, it is still better than nothing.
On the other hand, they will have to be rewarded not with an easily-reversible suspension, but with the formal abolition of some “sectoral sanctions.”
How many sanctions will be removed ought to depend on how many pieces of equipment and nuclear sites the North Koreans will agree to sacrifice – it is a bargain, after all.
We will soon learn which way talks are going. It’s remains possible that opponents of the deal will successfully torpedo it and go back to their normal position of “waiting for Godot,” that is, for the unachievable goal of North Korean denuclearization.
It’s also possible that the compromise deal will become merely a symbolic exercise, an exchange of concessions which both sides will intend to be short-lived.
However, there is still some hope that a reasonably-meaningful deal will be achieved, and that the North Korean advancement to a full-scale nuclear capability will be slowed or maybe even stopped.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES
This author spent the last week in Washington DC, and one thing now seems clear: a deal with North Korea is, at last, in the works. Working-level talks are about to begin, and its participants (as well as their bosses) are optimistic about success and certain that in the near future they will be able to forge a compromise on the North Korean nuclear issue.Outside observers do not necessarily
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.