A premature focus on peace could undermine efforts to destroy North Korea’s weapons of war.
Which does President Trump crave more, a Nobel Peace Prize or getting rid of North Korea’s nukes?
This may be the most tantalizing question as he meets with Kim Jong Un this week in Hanoi for their second summit.
After the first summit in Singapore, Trump famously tweeted, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” But, contrary to White House hype, no progress has been made toward eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
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And Trump now appears more focused on issuing a declaration of peace with Pyongyang — a step he thinks could win him the Noble Peace Prize that “everyone thinks I deserve.” Last week, he told reporters he was in “no rush” for North Korea to give up its nukes.
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The big question: Will a focus on peace help or hurt the effort to denuclearize North Korea?
On the surface, there may seem nothing risky about finally replacing the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement with a formal peace. (And a U.S. peace declaration would only be the first step toward finalizing a treaty.)
And peacemaking would certainly make for juicy headlines. But it would also provide an opening for Kim to play Trump as he did in Singapore. A premature focus on peace could undermine efforts to destroy North Korea’s weapons of war.
A look back at the Singapore summit shows how Kim could use a peace declaration to derail serious moves toward denuclearization. “The White House accepted a vague, poorly crafted summit statement that was weaker than North Korean statements made in previous negotiations,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner, a former CIA North Korea expert.
Claims that North Korea pledged to get rid of its nuclear program are exaggerated by the White House. Despite a halt to nuclear and missile tests, work is continuing on both programs. Pyongyang has yet to give Washington any itemization of its nuclear facilities and arsenal.
Moreover, although North Korea agreed to work toward the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Pyongyang interprets this term very differently than the White House. The phrase makes no specific commitment to getting rid of all of North Korea’s weapons. But to North Koreans, the term means the United States must remove its troops and nuclear umbrella from South Korea and the entire North Asian region.
Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special envoy for North Korea, admitted last month that the United States does “not have a specific and agreed definition” with North Korea of what would constitute “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
So Washington hasn’t even gotten to Square One with the North Koreans on a common definition of “denuclearization.”
Given this lack of progress, Trump’s focus on making “peace” headlines in Hanoi could divert attention from pressing Kim on nuclear basics.
Biegun said last month that the United States could negotiate on peace and denuclearization at the same time. Yet Trump’s delirious praise for the North Korean leader makes one wonder how hard he will press Kim on the nuclear track. Add to that the U.S. intelligence community’s belief that North Korea will never give up all its nuclear weapons because it believes they are essential to its existence. Those two realities indicate how difficult it will be to make progress in Hanoi.
Here are two huge questions that may determine the outcome of this second summit:
1. What concessions would Trump demand from Kim in return for a peace declaration?
At minimum, the two sides must reach a common understanding of the meaning of “denuclearization” and a road map for negotiations that spells out timetables and details. “U.S. leaders have touted diplomatic successes only to find them evaporate due to inadequately defined requirements,” says Klingner.
Moreover, the big U.S. ask will probably be for the dismantlement of the Yongbyon reactor, part of North Korea’s main nuclear complex. But the administration must not overrate this achievement, if it materializes. Yongbyon has been shut down before and then restarted. This time, there must be guarantees of permanence. Moreover, there are other nuclear facilities that Pyongyang has yet to declare.
2. Will a peace declaration make it harder to get rid of North Korean nukes?
Going down this road now will encourage Pyongyang to press for a removal of U.S. troops from South Korea — long before any denuclearization. China, and some South Korean politicians, may do likewise. After all, if peace is at hand, why are U.S. troops needed?
Although Trump says he has no immediate intention to do so, he has expressed interest before in a troop pullout. Yet those troops provide key leverage for nuclear talks. “North Korea wants us to exhaust all our leverage before we get to denuclearization,” says Thomas Pickering, former undersecretary of state and one of the most distinguished former U.S. ambassadors.
Kim knows what he is doing. For Trump, the gleam of a Nobel may have more appeal than the hard slog of denuclearization. In Hanoi, that will be the drama to watch.