As America descends into a tabloid culture of “breaking news,” the larger world might be on the brink of the historic denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps softened by the Winter Olympics in February, North Korea’s mercurial dictator Kim Jong Un shortly thereafter invited President Donald Trump for a summit to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for ironclad security guarantees from the United States and its allies. Despite the misgivings of his staff, Trump happily accepted, saying that a meeting will take place “by May.”
No matter the history of failed agreements with North Korea on its nuclear program, this time the fundamentals are in place for such a comprehensive agreement. This time, the recent harsh sanctions imposed by the international community are squeezing North Korea into even further abject poverty.
Also, as opposed to all previous U.S. presidents dating back to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, Trump’s fiery rhetoric and bellicose military moves have probably convinced Kim Jong Un that the “crazy man Trump,” as he has called him, might actually strike a military blow of some sort. However grim these various scenarios might be for the rest of the world, the bottom line for Kim Jong Un is that his regime will not survive any of them. The recent selection of hawkish advisors Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser do serve to reinforce a belief in Trump’s resolve.
If there is a deal worth signing, it should look like this:
The U.S., China, North Korea and South Korea — the belligerents to the Korean War of 1950-53 — will sign a peace treaty formally and finally end that conflict and guaranteeing the security of the peninsula.
As part of this treaty, all foreign forces (mainly the 30,000 American troops) will be withdrawn.
In exchange, all weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological) on the peninsula will be dismantled and destroyed.
This will be carried out under the supervision of a permanent Inspection Commission co-chaired by China and Japan. The commission will have continued access to all weapons sites, and will have the authority to conduct unscheduled, “no prior notification” inspections.
Should either co-chair determine that a violation has occurred, it will issue a “cease and desist” order. Should the order be ignored, the U.S. will have the right to enforce the order.
Pending the good behavior of Pyongyang, the international community gradually will lift the sanctions and integrate North Korea into the world trading system.
If the agreement does not include provisions three, four and five, the United States should not sign it.
So what are the chances of such an agreement occurring?
Beyond the favorable fundamentals, the other criterion for success is diplomatic finesse. On these grounds, it is hard to be hopeful. All international negotiations are prey to both predictable and unanticipated disputes, whose several complications can easily derail the talks.
Three are noteworthy. First, who shall sit at the table? In this case, certainly both Koreas and the United States. But there are other stakeholders who might insist on a place: China, Japan and even Russia and India.
As the places mount up, the chances for an indefinite postponement grows. Second, in what order should the six points of the proposed terms of the agreement be taken up? The chances for success are enhanced if the easier topics are addressed first to build a favorable momentum. But these provisions are so interlinked that discussing them separately becomes problematic.
My suggestion is to take up points one, two and three as a package first (the treaty, denuclearization and U.S. troop withdrawals). If the outlines of a deal can be reached here, then the thorny issues of compliance and enforcement (points four and five) can be taken up, while throwing in the inducement of lifting sanctions when the talks get stuck (point six).
Finally, all negotiations eventually split into a public track and a secret track. Keeping these two tracks in sync will need constant coordination and Tweet-less discipline.
Now poised at the starting blocks of this race, can Trump finish it, and close the deal? Observing how he manages his White House, I am not optimistic. But I pray I am wrong.