North Korea, a poor, isolated, unpredictable and nuclear-armed country, presents a perilous foreign policy challenge, but the chances of urgently needed U.S.-North Korean arms control negotiations are currently not encouraging.
The way forward is to change our goal to a “small deal” – that is to aim initially not for a completely disarmed North Korea, but a freeze on its weapons arsenal.
The Trump administration has demanded from North Korea a “big deal,” that is a verifiable, complete “denuclearization,” and major changes in the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – or its collapse. The administration rejects a “small deal” that falls short of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
But Kim has proven resilient. He has made clear he will not give up his arsenal, which he sees as essential to his regime’s survival. While U.S. and U.N. sanctions have taken a toll, there is little to suggest that North Korea is near the breaking point.
North Korea is strengthening its armed forces (already among the largest in the world) and accelerating its build-up of nuclear weapons.
Negotiations would have to take place in close consultation with other parties, including South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the European Union. China and Russia can be expected to defend Kim and try to weaken sanctions. Even leveraging international support is not a given, because several countries do not support America’s approach to North Korea.
Any deal must include rigorous inspections and enforceable limits on North Korea’s weapons development, with carefully drawn incentives for North Korea to agree.
To some degree, even a small deal will be unsatisfactory to both sides. But the alternative is no further negotiations, and a significant ramping up of regional tensions, which could lead to conflict.
Our policy should change. The denuclearization of North Korea should remain our ultimate goal (the big deal), but we should seek first an enforceable and verifiable step-by-step agreement (the small deal).
The small deal would allow North Korea to remain a nuclear power but freeze its development of nuclear weapons. Over time, it could build trust that could lead to more wide-ranging deals to cut North Korea’s weapons. This is the diplomatic path with the best chance of success.
However, for reasons unclear, the Trump administration has not expressed much concern about North Korea.
There is no sense of urgency from U.S. officials, who seem to underestimate the threat of the North Korean actions and military buildup.
The 2018 meeting in Singapore between Trump and Kim raised hopes that the United States and North Korea could put an end to 70 years of hostility, but the opportunity is slipping away, and the world is becoming more dangerous.
By Lee H. Hamilton