WASHINGTON –– President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un say they have the same goal — denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — at their upcoming summit in Singapore.
But they disagree fundamentally about what that would look like.
The dispute over the shape, scope and speed of a potential disarmament has stymied international efforts to stop or roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for three decades. It arguably poses the biggest obstacle to a successful summit now that it is back on track for June 12.
Reconciling or finessing that gap — and determining what the secretive police state would get in return for handing over or dismantling its nuclear arsenal — could make the difference between a deal or no deal after the haggling starts.
“The common mistake is to assume when the North Koreans talk about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, they’re talking about giving up all their weapons,” said Victor Cha, who headed Asian affairs in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and who participated took in nuclear talks with North Korea at the time.
“It’s not really the way we look at it, which is ‘Crate it up and take it out,” said Cha, who now heads the Korea program at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rather, he said, North Koreans view denuclearization as a long-term aspiration, the way Americans talk of someday abolishing nuclear weapons worldwide. North Korea has a long list of other grievances, and could demand the removal of U.S. troops, or even the U.S. nuclear umbrella, from South Korea.
“It’s an endless list,” said Michael Green, another veteran of Bush administration negotiations with North Korea. “They will keep adding to the list of things we have to do in order for them to denuclearize until the cows come home.”
Most experts say Pyongyang wants to be recognized as a full-fledged nuclear power with the weapons it has, but with global obligations, much as Communist China’s nuclear arms program ultimately was accepted after President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.
The broad parameters of a potential deal are well-established. The U.S. side wants North Korea to give up the estimated 20 to 60 nuclear weapons that it has built, and the infrastructure that created them, and presumably the ballistic missiles that can hurl them across the Pacific.
In exchange, Trump can offer U.S. security guarantees for the regime in Pyongyang, better relations with Washington and its allies in Japan and South Korea and easing of international economic sanctions that have strangled North Korea’s ability to trade with the outside world. Trump has signaled that he won’t offer financial aid, though he has suggested he would ask Asian allies to do so.
Whether that’s enough — or whether North Korea is really prepared to give up a weapons program that has consumed much of the impoverished country’s energy and resources for decades — remains to be seen.
The two sides have yet to define denuclearization, a strategic ambiguity that could provide negotiating room or doom the diplomacy altogether.
The goal for the Trump administration is what it calls “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” jargon now so common it’s referred to as CVID.
In theory, that would require detailed inspections and long-term monitoring of hundreds of North Korean military sites and buildings, most now secret, in a verification program far more intrusive than the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump recently abandoned.
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, enraged North Koreans and nearly scuttled the sensitive diplomacy when he suggested that North Korea should follow the “Libya model.” Libya gave up its nascent nuclear program in 2003 in hopes, largely unfulfilled, of economic benefits. Its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was killed in an uprising eight years later.
Most nuclear experts discount the idea of an immediate and complete denuclearization in North Korea given its big program and deep distrust of Washington. They say full disarmament probably would require at least a decade and allow the two governments to build trust over time as they see results.
“The summit represents a historic opportunity,” said Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of the few Americans who has toured North Korea’s major nuclear facilities. But he said Washington “will have to settle for a phased process,” not a quick disarmament.
Hecker and two co-authors, Robert Carlin and Elliot Serbin, recently completed a study at Stanford University arguing that full disarmament would take 15 years. After nuclear weapons and missile tests stop, they argue, initial stages would include ending production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, either of which can power a bomb, and stopping exports of nuclear technology or expertise to other states.