The nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea (DPRK) seemed to have stalled. The meeting that was originally scheduled for early November in New York City was cancelled at the last minute. Some are speculating that that this is due to disagreement over the interpretation of the Singapore declaration.
This should have been expected. The United States and DPRK remain far apart when it comes to defining exactly what the denuclearization process will look like. If the United States wants talks to go forward, all parties involved (United States, DPRK, and by extension South Korea (RoK)) need to be clear about what to expect and when to expect it. To get the talks moving again: 1) the United States and RoK should lay out the exact terms of denuclearization, complete with a timetable and verification steps; and 2) the DPRK should define what security guarantees Kim Jong-un will need to feel comfortable giving up his nuclear weapons.
Since leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, the DPRK has been working almost single mindedly towards its deterrent – a fully functional nuclear weapon (namely a warhead and its delivery system). While it is believed that the DPRK had been clandestinely working on a nuclear program since the mid-1980s, it was this post 2003 surge in effort that resulted in Kim Jong-un declaring his deterrent “complete” in 2017. The United States responded to this by implementing increasingly harsher sanctions on the DPRK. It was not until after the 2017 declaration, despite years of sanctions, that the DPRK was finally willing to come to the table.
Nuclear weapons still have a strong deterrence value. While there is still some uncertainty over how complete the DPRK’s nuclear deterrent actually is, the bottom line is that Kim Jong-un felt safe enough to engage the United States and RoK in talks. The goal of any dictator is regime survival. Kim Jong-un does not want to suffer the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – give up one’s WMDs only to be bombed by Western powers and executed in the streets. If the United States wants Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons, it must first convince Kim Jong-un that he does not need them to be safe from Western aggression.
This will not be easy, but a good first step would be to execute an actual peace treaty to finally end the Korean War. The RoK, under President Moon Jae-in, is pursuing this goal already, but the United States has been reluctant to follow suite. It would be a mistake for Washington to dictate to Seoul whether it should sign a peace treaty with Pyongyang, but that does not mean Washington cannot provide any input into the contents of the treaty. Critically, the United States and RoK must first understand what Kim Jong-un would require in terms of security guarantees. With that knowledge, Washington could then advise Seoul on what to put into the peace treaty that would compel Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons, while also working in a verification mechanism to ensure that the DPRK’s program actually shuts down. Provisions such as a moratorium on missile testing and an extensive verification program would be critical additions to any peace agreement that would include guarantees to Kim Jong-un’s safety.
Trust, but Verify
An important component of any nuclear agreement is the verification element. Any good disarmament treaty, such as the INF treaty or START I, contains a verification mechanism. Any good verification mechanism is intrusive, with the ability to inspect anywhere and anything. Verification should be a cornerstone of the United States’ requirements for denuclearization. As such, a comprehensive timeline for removal and subsequent verification should be proposed, if it has not been done so already. While the United States can be flexible with the length of time it takes for removal, it should insist on an intrusive verification regime. While this has been a major sticking point for Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un has already pledged to allow international observers to verify the shutdown of the Yongbyon facility if the United States will respond with “corresponding measures.” This vague requirement can be clarified into a reward, such as limited sanctions relief, and used as a carrot to entice Pyongyang into allowing for further, and more intrusive, inspections. Without international verification, there is no way to be sure that the DPRK will not maintain a “hidden” nuclear program or stockpile.
Finally, the United States should focus its negotiations solely on the removal of nuclear weapons, long range ballistic missiles, and the ability to manufacture them – not on the litany of human rights abuses that Pyongyang is responsible for. The United States should not lose sight of its primary goal – to get nuclear weapons off the Korean peninsula. The United States wants the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-un wants the guarantee that his regime will not be invaded or killed. There is a middle ground here.