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View more articles by Dan DePetris
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the National Interest and a contributor to 38 North, a program of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
To have assumed last weekend’s working-level discussions between U.S. and North Korean negotiators would result in a groundbreaking diplomatic achievement would have been a fool’s errand, but very few anticipated that the dialogue would collapse so quickly.
Days after news of the impasse first broke, it’s difficult to determine why the U.S.-North Korea talks in Sweden ended so abruptly after only eight and a half hours.
Both sides have issued completely conflicting statements, further muddying the waters. North Korean chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil strongly condemned the U.S. team for what he described as the Trump administration’s inability to offer the creative solutions and “new model” promised by the President himself weeks earlier.
“The U.S. came out empty [handed] without any calculations we asked for,” Kim told reporters. “The negotiations failed to live up to our expectations and broke down.”
The North Korean foreign ministry expounded the following day, openly questioning the Trump administration’s sincerely in fomenting a more constructive bilateral relationship and doubting whether the U.S. even had the competency to change its position.
The U.S. State Department’s interpretation of the meeting could not have been more different, both stressing “good discussions with its DPRK counterparts” and a willingness to meet again in two weeks.
It’s difficult to determine why the U.S.-North Korea talks in Sweden ended so abruptly
President Trump, always on the prowl for a deal that can capture the headlines, is still open to an agreement with the North and will very likely press the diplomatic track until Pyongyang resumes testing intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
MAKING SENSE OF A MESS
There have been a variety of explanations offered as to why the discussions in Sweden broke down. Some have cited Pyongyang’s decades-long mastery of diplomatic brinksmanship, where walking away from the table and threatening a new way forward is part of the dance of collecting more leverage for future talks.
Others have assessed that Kim Jong Un is stringing Washington along and using the time to accelerate and refine their military modernization programs.
But there is a very basic, alternative explanation few in Washington, DC have trouble admitting openly: North Korea never intended to cooperate in denuclearization talks to begin with.
And if the North is participating in negotiations, it’s not to disarm themselves, but rather to reset the terms of the entire debate to such an extent that the U.S. finally accepts the inevitable—North Korea is and likely will forever be a nuclear weapons state.
To the foreign policy denizens in Washington on both sides of the political aisle, permitting a nuclear-armed North Korea is an unacceptable capitulation and a public humiliation for the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.
According to this logic, to shower the North Koreans with such status would be to enable the end of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as we know it.
There is a vigorous discussion within the arms control community about what a nuclear North Korea would mean for the larger arms control debate.
U.S. policy on North Korea has been the very definition of inertia-driven
Some are legitimately terrified about the dangerous message such a scenario would send to other would-be proliferators around the world—namely, that the United States is incapable of preventing others from acquiring the most destructive weapon on the planet.
The politics of inertia play a significant role as well. Nothing happens inside the Beltway quickly, least of all dramatic shifts in public policy. If policy does change, it changes incrementally in order to prevent a shock to the system, get as many stakeholders on board as possible, and minimize whatever political damage is produced.
U.S. policy on North Korea has been the very definition of inertia-driven, where assumptions are stubbornly static even as the situation around the Korean peninsula has changed.
A CHANGING NORTH KOREA
Indeed, U.S. policy is the same this year as it was in the early 1990s: if Pyongyang wants the benefits and privileges of being a full member of the international community, its leadership needs to make the strategic decision to part ways with its nuclear program.
If the Kim regime fails to make that calculation and continues to invest in its own nuclear development, then it will remain a pariah in its own neighborhood.
This policy could have been effective in the 1990s, when Pyongyang’s nuclear program was still relatively confined to the major Yongbyon research facility. In fact, Washington had some success curtailing the North’s nuclear capacity for roughly eight years through the 1994 Agreed Framework. Back then, denuclearization was at least plausible.
Fast-forward to today, however, and the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea” that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeats like clockwork in press releases and remarks to the media is exceedingly difficult to accomplish. The North Korea of 2019 is not the same as the North Korea of 1994.
By all estimations, North Korea could possess as many as 60 nuclear warheads. Yongbyon remains the crown jewel of the North’s nuclear infrastructure, but the country has diversified its nuclear operations away from this facility.
The North retains at least one uranium enrichment facility at Kangson (in addition to its enrichment operations at Yongbyon) and very likely operates additional facilities that are undisclosed.
As good as the U.S., South Korean, and Japanese intelligence establishments are, whether these three countries know the location of all of Pyongyang’s research, development, and production facilities is very much an open question.
Nor do many in the Washington policy community have the scientific understanding of just how labor-intensive North Korea’s theoretical denuclearization would be.
By all estimations, North Korea could possess as many as 60 nuclear warheads
This is a country, after all, that has been closed to International Atomic Energy Agency Inspectors for over a decade and whose work is purposely shrouded in secrecy.
For any denuclearization model to work, the North Koreans would be required to provide an honest, full, comprehensive declaration of its nuclear weapons program from start to finish very early on in the process—a declaration that Washington would be highly unlikely to accept as honest even if the Kim regime said otherwise.
Implementation of a denuclearization agreement, regardless of its terms, would be a long and technically complicated affair and consist of inevitable disagreements on pace, scope, and timing, all of which could jeopardize progress along the way.
Indeed, if there is any lesson from the experience surrounding the Agreed Framework, it is that the implementation of an agreement is just as important as the text of the document itself.
THE LIMITS OF MAXIMUM PRESSURE
The foreign policy commentariat also has an unhealthy tendency to assume that the North Korean leadership can be coerced, bullied, or threatened into delivering its nuclear deterrent to the United States on a silver platter.
Former national security adviser John Bolton, of course, is a loud and persistent proponent of this view, which is devoid of any consideration or knowledge of North Korea’s recent history and vastly exaggerates the power of the United States to dictate outcomes.
While Bolton may be a scorned and old commodity now, his central belief—if the U.S. just tries the pressure strategy one more time Pyongyang will eventually fold and make an agreement on America’s terms—is still taken as fact by much of the mainstream.
Why Kim Jong Un would sacrifice his life insurance policy when the United States continues to threaten his regime is either dismissed as unimportant or laughed off as insignificant.
It is still to be determined whether working-level talks are stalled as Pyongyang suggests. Anybody who confidently predicts what will happen in the days and weeks ahead is doing nothing but exposing arrogance. Jumping to conclusions at this point is unwise.
However, what can be said with reasonable certainty is that the United States may have reached the point where the prospect of North Korea’s complete, verifiable denuclearization is as likely as pigs growing wings.
The longer old, stale assumptions persist, the more likely the Trump administration will continue to spin its wheels and waste valuable time—time that could otherwise be spent on reassessing the policy and planning accordingly.
Anybody who confidently predicts what will happen in the days and weeks ahead is doing nothing but exposing arrogance
Instead of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, the Trump administration should begin evaluating the North Korea nuclear issue as a problem to be managed rather than a problem that can be solved on Washington’s timetable.
This means introducing some clarity and reality into U.S. objectives and recognizing that hinging U.S. policy on North Korea’s denuclearization (at least for the foreseeable future) is a key to an empty room.
Prefacing more constructive U.S.-DPRK and inter-Korean relations to a dream is merely delaying the moment when the clouds of perpetual hostility over the Korean Peninsula are lifted.
The solution is ripe for anyone who cares to grab it.
Kim Jong Un has expressed no interest in handing over the keys to his nuclear kingdom, but he may be open to a transactional arms control arrangement where its future capacity is capped, its arsenal is gradually restricted and internationally verified over a longer period of time in exchange for the economic and diplomatic normalization measures North Korean leaders have long craved.
This will be a bitter pill for the United States to swallow, particularly in the nation’s capital, where demanding Pyongyang’s unequivocal nuclear surrender is as sacrosanct as visiting the Lincoln Memorial.
But it’s a bitter pill America’s political class will have to swallow nonetheless. The alternative—the status-quo ante—tastes even worse.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House