By Martin Navias
Should President Trump meet Kim Jong-un as planned, there are three key but achievable objectives that President Trump’s team should emphasize. These objectives fall short of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons or its ballistic missiles – not even if failure to do so leads to the starvation of much of its populace. Nevertheless, the objectives outlined here are both important and attainable.
Objective 1: Destruction of North Korea’s ICBMs
North Korea currently deploys hundreds of missiles, but only a handful are capable of hitting the US at present. Left unchecked, this long-range missile force will grow, and more and more American cities will become vulnerable to North Korean nuclear and thermonuclear attack. It is these weapons that Trump needs neutralize as the defense of the American homeland must remain his prime objective.
It cannot be a goal of the American president to require the North Korean leader to disarm his short-range, medium-range, and intermediate-range missiles, even if they remain nuclear-capable. However, Kim Jong-un’s Hwasong 14 and 15 missiles, his space-launched vehicles, and the untested KN-08 and 14 systems need to be destroyed together with their production facilities so as to relieve the threat to the continental US. In addition, North Korean submarine-launched ballistic missiles need to be terminated as they can be pushed closer to the American west coast, and submarines can launch shorter-range weapons at US continental targets.
South Korea, Japan, and the American territory of Guam will remain vulnerable to attack from the hundreds of remaining North Korean missiles, but this cannot be President Trump’s key focus during the summit. He must concentrate on protecting the American homeland. Kim Jong-un should thus be allowed to retain over 99% of his existing deployed missile force.
Objective 2: Halting of nuclear weapons development
North Korea is believed to have in its possession between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons. Aside from the express articulation of a general denuclearization aspiration – something that will save American face and is in any case something Pyongyang is not averse to pronouncing – little effort should be expended in these discussions on getting the North Koreans to destroy this arsenal. Every effort should, however, be made to ensure that no more testing or production of nuclear weapons takes place. North Korea can retain its nuclear force, which, as Pyongyang is well aware, is more than adequate to defend the regime from external threats – but production of more weaponry needs to end immediately. Kim Jong-un should be allowed to retain most of his existing nuclear force but must forgo any future developments.
Objective 3: Cessation of all transfers
The North Koreans need to explicitly commit to abstain from transferring any weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles, or related technology to third parties. There can be absolutely no exceptions.
What concessions can President Trump offer in order to obtain these objectives?
Some have argued that the very fact that Trump is willing to meet Kim is giving the Korean leader the greatest prize he desires – legitimacy – without his having to surrender anything. This is untrue. What Kim wants is not the legitimacy of a presidential meeting but a reduction in the biting sanctions that Trump has ratcheted up and a lessening of his threats, which have clearly unnerved him. In any event, even if this argument is true, holding off on such a meeting until an agreement is finalized has not worked for decades. It is certainly time to change tack.
In exchange for the highly desirable objectives outlined above, the US should promise a reduction in sanctions, economic assistance, and a non-aggression treaty whereby neither the country nor the regime will be a US target. The key issues here are admittedly thorny ones: timing and verification.
Pyongyang has cheated on such deals before, and future performance is best predicted on the basis of past performance. Consequently, if the North Koreans are going to get the guarantees and economic support they so desperately crave, they are going to have to continue their no-testing policies and allow a level of intrusive inspections that are alien to them.
Furthermore, there can be absolutely no “sunset” clauses of the type the Obama administration conceded to the Iranians whereby most restrictions are scheduled to end at a future date. The deal must be in perpetuity. Once the Hwasong missiles and warhead technologies have been confirmed destroyed, sanctions can start to be eased. Any backsliding by Pyongyang must inexorably lead to a snapback of sanctions, their escalation, and a build-up of forces arrayed against North Korea. This must be made absolutely clear by President Trump.
Critics will no doubt complain that such a regime is difficult to monitor. No doubt that is true. But those same critics were largely satisfied with the verification program Iran signed in their nuclear deal. A North Korean nuclear deal should not have weaker mechanisms than what was agreed with Tehran. The alternatives are the growing vulnerability of American cities to nuclear threats and the increasing possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula.