The stunning revelation this week that CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over Easter weekend is a stark reminder that the pieces of the puzzle posed by a nuclear North Korea are moving rapidly. According to President Trump’s Wednesday morning tweet, “Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed…Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”
Most national security experts have criticized Trump’s decision to meet face-to-face with the North Korean leader at the beginning, rather than the end, of a long diplomatic process, and are predicting that the meeting will be a failure. In contrast, I see the potential for a significant win for the USA. While forecasts about the unknown future are inherently uncertain, I sense the possibility of what I call a “six-win solution.”
In the swirl of tweets and images, it is easy to lose sight of the contours of the fundamental challenge the U.S. faces. The ugly, inconvenient question most critics fail to consider is: Starting from this point in North Korea’s nuclear odyssey, what are the remaining feasible alternatives? As I wrote last November, for North Korea in 2018 there are only three realistic outcomes. First, Kim could complete additional ICBM tests that enable Pyongyang to credibly threaten American cities with nuclear strikes. Second, Trump could attack North Korea to prevent outcome No. 1. Or third, there could be what I called a “minor miracle.”
At this point, Trump and Kim have opened the door to the third possibility. Down that path it is already possible to see the outlines of an agreement that would allow both men to declare victory to the audience they care about most—at home. And this solution would also give South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, China’s Xi Jinping, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin victories of their own. Sensing this potential, and knowing how unpredictable both Trump and Kim can be, each leader is scrambling to demonstrate that he was not left out of what could be declared a historic agreement. In this context, Kim’s recent visit to Beijing, which caught some observers by surprise, was predictable—China doesn’t want to be cut out. And with Moon already scheduled to meet Kim later this month, watch Abe’s and Putin’s moves in the weeks ahead. Should the Trump-Kim summit lead to a concrete agreement, Trump—who famously promised “too much winning” during his campaign—could boast of a six-win deal.
What would such a deal look like? In essence, Trump and Kim would announce they had agreed to a framework to verifiably denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, establish a peace regime in which the parties vow to respect each other’s sovereignty and security, and move toward normalization of relations and a peace treaty ending the Korean War.
Trump and Kim would instruct their personal envoys and negotiation teams to begin immediately working out the specific actions each would take to realize these objectives. They would agree that while negotiations are ongoing, North Korea will continue its moratorium on further missile and nuclear tests, and the U.S. will not further tighten sanctions. They would announce that progress toward the ultimate objectives would advance step by step, verifiable action for verifiable action. And to ensure that the interests of the other four nations are considered, the bilateral negotiators would be embedded in a larger six-party negotiating process similar to the so-called P5+1 negotiations that stopped Iran’s nuclear advance.
Furthermore, if Kim wants to make a big impression on Trump, he could offer, as a visible down payment, to eliminate one or even a small number of nuclear weapons. And Trump could agree that while the “maximum pressure” sanctions remain in place, an exception could be made for South Korea to provide humanitarian assistance.
In the course of negotiations, if a feasible way can be found for North Korea to verifiably freeze fissile material production and further reduce its existing stockpile, the U.S. and South Korea would offer additional sanctions relief and economic assistance. The U.S. would reiterate its long-held position that U.S. forces are present in Korea only at the invitation of the South Korean government and that if some future government of a confederal or unified Korea asked the U.S. to withdraw completely, it would do so expeditiously.
How would the dealmakers sell such an agreement to their citizens as a big win?
For Kim, the mere fact that the president of the United States has accepted his invitation for a one-on-one meeting has elevated him to a world-class player. Prior to this surge of diplomacy, he had already declared “mission accomplished” in establishing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, so he can extend the testing freeze indefinitely without significant objections. (After last November’s successful ICBM tests, Kim declared that North Korea had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”) And even if he gets only modest official relief from the onerous sanctions, he knows that enforcement of sanctions will erode in the afterglow of the deal.
For Trump, this deal would allow him to fulfill a key promise: He pledged to stop Kim from acquiring the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. Without further full-range ICBM launches to test the performance of the re-entry vehicle, Kim cannot definitively demonstrate the ability to hit the U.S. homeland with a nuclear warhead. Thus, as long as the deal prevents North Korea from conducting further ICBM tests, Trump will be able to claim that he stopped Kim short of America’s goal line—despite the fact that his predecessors failed to stop the Kim regime from marching down the field into the U.S. red zone. As one of the most skilled marketers in American political history, Trump could sell this as a huge win.
For Moon, the benefits of a deal are obvious: It prevents the U.S. from starting a war against North Korea that would likely result in retaliation against Seoul, killing hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. Moon can also rightfully take credit for the shrewd diplomatic maneuvering that led to this historic summit: inviting North Korea to the Olympics, sending a special envoy to Pyongyang, securing a commitment from Kim to meet, and artfully giving Trump credit for the pressure campaign that created conditions that brought Kim to the negotiating table. A successful summit would also be a huge political victory for Moon ahead of South Korea’s June 13 local elections, in which he hopes to bury the conservative opposition party in order to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda.
Japan’s Shinzo Abe will worry that this deal leaves North Korea with its current ability to conduct nuclear strikes against his country. But he knows that an American attack on North Korea could provoke North Korean retaliation against Japan, including nuclear strikes. So he will welcome anything that averts a second Korean War. Moreover, after multiple North Korean missiles flew over Japan last year, to which Japan responded with nothing but verbal condemnation, Abe will have been spared further provocations from Kim that make him look weak.
What about Xi? Until recently, China had found itself sidelined in the recent wave of diplomacy. But by persuading Kim to come to Beijing for his first international trip as North Korean leader, Xi has shown that he is a player. To fellow citizens, he is presenting himself as the responsible adult who is leading both the inexperienced Trump and the young Kim to make reasonable concessions that avoid war. Ultimately, Xi’s paramount concern on the Korean Peninsula is sufficient stability for China to pursue its bold domestic agenda. The combination of Kim’s antics and Trump’s threats have brought the peninsula closer to war than at any point since 1953. If Trump and Kim reach a deal that reduces the risk of war on China’s doorstep, Xi will have met his basic requirement.
The one leader who has been conspicuously quiet over the last month is Putin. But don’t expect him to stay on the sidelines. He will seek to capitalize on the prospect of any deal to assert himself as a global power broker. Look for Putin to invite Kim for a tête-à-tête, perhaps in Vladivostok, sometime in the next several weeks.
If a deal along these lines emerges from the Trump-Kim summit, it does not require a crystal ball to forecast that it will be attacked by American critics on both sides. Some will object that now is not the time to let up on the maximum pressure campaign that is finally starting to squeeze Kim. But we should remember what sanctions were designed to do in the first place: Force Kim to come to the table and make concessions. Pressure is not a strategy in itself, and it is not without costs. As Kim becomes more financially desperate, he grows more likely to sell whatever he has to the highest bidder. Aside from a direct attack on the U.S. or its allies, the greatest threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea is that a regime long-known as “Missiles R’ Us” also becomes “Nukes R’ Us” and sells a bomb to a rogue state or terrorist group. So perversely, the tighter the U.S.-led international sanctions squeeze North Korea, the greater the incentives for the cash-strapped regime to turn to the nuclear black market.
Others will object that this deal does not fully “solve” North Korea, as Trump had earlier promised—since it will allow North Korea to maintain its nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. While that is correct, statecraft requires leaders to choose the least ugly option. At this point, the only other alternative to seeing North Korea acquire a credible nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland is an attack on North Korea that would likely trigger a catastrophic war. By reaching a framework agreement with Kim, Trump will have started down a third path—at least for now. While I share the skepticism of most experts about the chances of this achieving a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, I suspect this may be the worst possible outcome except for all the others.