On the eve of his departure for his second summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, US President Donald Trump said: “I don’t want to rush anybody. I just don’t want testing. As long as there is no testing, we’re happy.”
Last April, Kim announced a halt to testing nuclear weapons and missiles, a positive but reversible step. Still, with an arsenal estimated to contain dozens of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that can reach the continental United States, the North Korean threat remains as urgent and serious as ever.
Remarkably, Trump has declared himself content with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Not only is this a dangerous reversal of decades of American policy, which has long sought the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula, it amounts to acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state.
For Trump, diplomacy with North Korea has always been about theatre and politics. In falsely declaring after his first summit with Kim that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” while bragging that the risk of war — which he foolishly stoked — is now diminished, the president is intent on creating the illusion of progress. In fact, there has been none toward our core goal of full denuclearisation.
Trump instead touts his love of Kim at campaign rallies and generates Nobel Peace Prize nominations for himself with the aim of convincing his political base that he is a diplomatic genius. If he can punt the complex North Korean nuclear threat to the end of his presidency without being disturbed by new tests, Trump would seem content to claim victory and leave the problem to his successors.
A risk that’s two-fold
Thus, the risk of the Hanoi summit is two-fold. First, in a rush to generate good optics and distract from unpleasant developments at home, Trump may make further concessions to the North Korean dictator, like a peace declaration, partial sanctions relief, or continued limitations on United States military exercises or troop presence without receiving tangible, irreversible concessions in return. Second, Trump risks squandering an opportunity to make real headway towards denuclearisation.
The United States intelligence community continues to assess that North Korea will not dismantle all of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems, because Kim sees them as vital to his regime’s survival. Still, it would be wise to test the limits of diplomacy and the possibility that American experts are wrong. Dialogue, backed by sanctions and concerted international pressure, represent the only rational path for defusing the North Korean nuclear threat. The alternative, a devastating conflagration that could escalate into nuclear war, should be unthinkable.
Fortunately, the Trump administration’s new envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, understands the risks and the opportunities. He is engaged in a serious effort to try both to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and address the issues impeding normalisation of relations. If Trump truly empowers Biegun and refrains from granting premature concessions or acquiescing in the unacceptable status quo, there is potential for meaningful dialogue in Hanoi — unlike the hyped, hollow pledges that characterised the Singapore summit.
To move the needle, the US and North Korea will need to agree on a series of incremental, reciprocal steps that would build mutual confidence as part of a road map to full denuclearisation. Such steps could combine verifiable constraints on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes with limited sanctions relief and movement toward achieving a final peace agreement. Reasonable constraints would include opening up declared North Korean facilities to international inspectors, halting further production of fissile material and ballistic missiles, codifying Kim’s announced testing freezes and non-proliferation pledge and obtaining firm commitments from North Korea to declare the totality of its nuclear and missile infrastructure.
The model for this approach, anathema as it is to Trump, is the Iran nuclear negotiations. First, the Obama administration reached an interim agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear development and roll back aspects of its programme in exchange for limited and reversible sanctions relief. This Joint Plan of Action created the conditions for extended negotiations to achieve — over a year and a half later — a final, verifiable deal to denuclearise Iran. This plan was affirmed by Congress and enshrined in international law. Iran was fully adhering to its obligations when the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew last year.
To maximise the prospects for success, as in the Iran negotiations, the United States needs China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to join in overseeing implementation of any interim deal. They must also tighten enforcement of existing sanctions and agree to synchronise any deliberate easing of pressure in exchange for concrete, verifiable steps from North Korea. Unfortunately, our international partners are pursuing their separate interests, diminishing American leverage. Though the Trump administration reflexively scorns multilateral efforts, North Korea is yet another case where going it alone won’t suffice.
In Hanoi, Trump has an opportunity to achieve incremental progress toward denuclearisation. Unfortunately, history suggests that Trump will be content with another colourful photo opportunity and more diplomatic shadow boxing that perpetuates the illusion of success, while running down the clock on a nearly intractable challenge.
Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser from 2013 to 2017 and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, is a contributing opinion writer.