In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Trump announced he will hold a second nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam Feb. 27 and 28. But Trump gave no clues as to how this new round of talks will move the denuclearization ball forward in the face of a recalcitrant North Korea.
If the Trump administration sticks to its current strategy, U.S. vital interests will remain secure. And in the end, that’s what is most important.
Earlier this year, the professional Korea watchers said we should wait until Kim’s New Year’s address to signal the prospects for a denuclearization deal. Well, that turned out to be a wash.
Kim said he was willing to meet Trump “anytime, anywhere.” On the other hand, the North Korean leader warned the U.S. not to “continue to break its promises and misjudge our patience by unilaterally demanding certain things” and pushing ahead with “sanctions and pressure."
Translation: Pyongyang would prefer to go back to the old way of negotiating. That’s where the North gets negotiated benefits on the front end – and finds excuses not to give up its nuclear weapons on the back end.
Everyone from President Trump on down knows that Kim’s definition of “denuclearization” does not match the U.S. interpretation. That said, the Trump administration remains more than willing to sit down with Kim again. The president reaffirmed that in his State of the Union speech.
Nothing in the president’s address suggests the fundamentals of the American negotiating strategy have changed. The U.S. wants Kim’s regime to take substantive steps toward denuclearization before providing any relief from sanctions or other punitive measures.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to dangle the benefits of normalizing relations, but only after Kim shuts down his nuclear arsenal. Until that happens, the U.S. intends to keep up its pressure campaign.
That’s as it should be. It’s the pressure campaign – not the negotiations – that is safeguarding U.S. interests.
What ought to keep Americans up at night are two concerns.
First, a war in Northeast Asia – that’s not good for anyone.
Second, we should be worried about North Korea having the ability to “blackmail” us with a demonstrable capacity to attack the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons.
The current U.S. strategy – which includes nuclear and conventional deterrence, robust missile defenses and heavy sanctions on North Korea – is the best way to control both threats.
These protective measures must remain in place until the danger is past. President Trump can continue to negotiate until the end of time – he won’t compromise U.S. security as long as he doesn’t compromise on what keeps Kim in his little box.
One concern is that, regardless of what Trump said in the State of the Union address, the president might “crack” at the summit, making concessions to Kim just to make the North Korean leader happy and keep the negotiations going. That would be bad. It’s also unlikely.
There is an additional concern that Trump might offer less damaging concessions – like agreeing to a peace treaty or a unilateral reduction of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula. As my colleague, Bruce Klingner, one of the foremost experts on North Korea, has pointed out: “North Korea wants a door prize before seriously negotiating.”
My advice to President Trump: Don’t do it. The biggest mistake the U.S. could make is falling back into the failed strategy of giving Kim something for nothing.
It is especially important that the U.S. keep the U.S.-South Korea conventional alliance strong and resilient.
Washington and Seoul are currently negotiating cost-sharing for U.S. forces in South Korea. It’s important that both sides work for a good result. Signs are right now that this is what is going to happen.
In the end, there is only one way to tell if the negotiations with Kim are going anywhere, and that’s if his regime agrees to a complete and verifiable accounting of all its nuclear assets.
If the North Koreans don’t do that, there is little point to negotiating. It would have been helpful if President Trump had made that point with crystal clarity in the State of the Union. Then at least all parties could have headed to the summit with no doubt as to what real progress in the talks would look like.
Now that all the speeches are done, let’s see what happens.
There is no question that the North Koreans have no desire to take the road to nuclear zero. Still, kudos to Trump for trying to take them there. After, it’s what would be best for both parties – especially North Korea.
Still, while the president should get credit for initiating a serious negotiation, what’s more important is that those negotiations produce no concessions that threaten vital U.S. interests.
There was no mention of caving in to North Korea’s demands the State of the Union. There should be none at the summit.