President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are expected to meet for a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the end of this month, with the goal of building on the largely symbolic outcomes of their first meeting in Singapore in June 2018.
Assuming the summit goes forward, what should the United States and its allies aim for when it comes to pursuing negotiations that limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities—and what concessions should we consider giving in turn? What are the parameters of a plausible agreement that would serve US and allied interests?
These are tough questions, and may seem near-impossible to resolve at first glance.
But the mere fact that there have been negotiations between Kim Jong-un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and President Trump has relieved the pressures that were building toward a potentially deadly U.S.-North Korea military confrontation in the final months of 2017. Escalating bluster has given way to an ongoing diplomatic process, facilitated by a freeze of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, the suspension of major US-South Korean military exercises, and other measures intended to build confidence.
The present thaw, however, may not serve the interests of the United States and its allies if the two sides are unable to turn reciprocal tension-reduction gestures into durable agreements.
On the one hand, there is a real risk that failed diplomacy will lead to renewed confrontation. If the United States insists, as many senior officials have, on a maximalist outcome—“the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea”—it is all but guaranteed to be disappointed. While an admirable long-term goal, unilateral North Korean disarmament is an unrealistic short-term demand; nothing in North Korean behavior during diplomatic negotiations nor the body of historical evidence suggests that Kim is willing to give up his nuclear-weapons capability anytime soon. Indeed, a senior North Korean official explicitly stated that Pyongyang is not interested in diplomacy if the US goal is to force “unilateral nuclear abandonment” on North Korea’s part.