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Following the charm offensive during the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, a South Korean delegation delivered an invitation to the White House for a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Trump has accepted this opportunity, with the two leaders touted to meet in May.
But it’s still too soon to be optimistic. Irrespective of the unconventional process leading to this purported summit, an agreement will not, and should not, be made in the space of one meeting. Instead, such a meeting should be used to engage, assess each other’s interests, priorities and level of commitment.
Looking beyond the immediate hurdles to getting to a summit, the US will need to consider the concessions it is willing and able to make in the event of North Korean commitment to a longer-term nuclear disarmament process. The options for concessions fall into three broad categories: security; economic; and political.
There is a sliding scale of security options. North Korea has recently communicated through South Korean officials that it is committed to denuclearisation if its security can be guaranteed. This is both largely and intentionally vague; would Pyongyang require, for instance, that the US relinquish its own nuclear arsenal in return for North Korean nuclear disarmament (as its state media seems to indicate), or could it accept a formal assurance of non-aggression from the US, or something in-between?
Since 2006 the international community has imposed sanctions through the UN Security Council and through unilateral security regimes, to squeeze the North Korean economy and drain resources from its weapons programme
The most discussed concession under this banner has been a freeze-for-freeze arrangement, under which the US–South Korea annual joint military exercises to which Pyongyang objects so much could be paused, downsized, or reconfigured, in exchange for a proportionate freeze of the North Korean missile and nuclear programmes.
Pyongyang has repeatedly protested against these exercises, claiming that the manoeuvres practice attacking the North and could be used as a cover for a US-led invasion.
But the double-freeze option is still a poorly understood concept, with many variables to be considered. On the US–South Korea side, this could include a restriction on the military hardware used or a cap on troop numbers participating, for example.
On the North Korean, side this could include a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing and/or a freeze of fissile material production. Knowing how these concessions balance up against each other and how they could be verified requires much deeper thought.
The second broad category of concessions the US may consider are economic. History provides a guide as to North Korea’s likely demands in relation to aid and the economy: past agreements with Pyongyang have traded limited North Korean nuclear concessions for food aid and economic relief.
North Korea has had a long interest in normalising relations with the US. Domestically, such a meeting could be portrayed as an equal-footing engagement of nuclear armed states, a recognition long-craved by Pyongyang
Since 2006 the international community has imposed sanctions through the UN Security Council and through unilateral security regimes, to squeeze the North Korean economy and drain resources from its weapons programme.
In theory, it might make sense to release those sanctions initially imposed to punish North Korean actions if there is a prospect that these actions are reversed. Such an action would differ from the above discussed option of freezing. Under this heading the US and its allies may conclude that the capabilities created under activities subject to sanctions still exist, albeit in a controlled way.
However, lifting or disentangling these resolutions might be difficult; would, for instance, the UN agree to rolling back its sanctions regime against North Korea for some progress in curtailing its nuclear and ballistic missile efforts, when these sanctions also refer to the broader security issues linked to the regime?
The most recent sanctions resolution against North Korea – UN Security Council Resolution 2397 (2017) – highlights the human rights abuses of the regime, as well as proliferation. This broad category of activities differs from the Iranian case where sanctions in relation to the nuclear programme were much clearer cut, meaning they could be directly tied to the rolling back of the nuclear programme.
Still, alternative economic concessions could be offered to Pyongyang, such as the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex which attracted South Korean investments, or similar joint economic ventures.
North Korea has had a long interest in normalising relations with the US. Securing a high-level meeting between a sitting US president and North Korea’s ruler represents status and brings security benefits too, with the lowering of the perceived military threat.
To some extent, if the summit goes ahead without something more concrete than a pause in missile tests, it will already be granting Kim a slice of this concession. With no official comment from Pyongyang on the US acceptance of the invitation and little evidence to suggest that North Korea has paused testing to create space for denuclearization dialogue, Kim has already made some gains here.
Domestically, such a meeting could be portrayed as an equal-footing engagement of nuclear armed states, a recognition long-craved by Pyongyang. But giving North Korea the diplomatic space to appear as a legitimate nuclear armed state would severely damage the non-proliferation regime.
For North Korea’s acceptance under such a scenario would merely demonstrate that those states pursuing illegal activities long enough and showing determination to withstand pressure from sanctions can ultimately achieve nuclear acceptance.
As such, this is not a concession that the US should grant and getting Congress on board with a process that appears to move away from a commitment to denuclearisation would be a huge challenge.
While pondering these three main areas of concessions, Washington will be thinking of its primary goals: the security of the US; the denuclearisation of North Korea; and the ongoing alliance with both South Korea and Japan. These goals are all interlinked, but achieving all three with equal success will be difficult, if not impossible.
A major difficulty as to whether the US should consider security concession is the trading of legitimate military exercises on the one hand for illegal testing activities on the other. If concerns over regime security are truly a driver of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, then work must be done to address this, especially if denuclearisation is to be achieved.
But given North Korea’s track record in agreements, the US and allies will likely want to keep their security blanket and deterrence mechanisms intact.
Trading part of joint military exercises could also damage the relationship with regional partners. But not seriously considering security concessions might damage the prospect of denuclearisation, and alliance assurances can be delivered in a multitude of ways. The reversible versus irreversible element to concessions balancing is an additional layer of complexity.
Lifting sanctions might seem like an appropriate concession, but without independently verifiable and irreversible nuclear roll back, all this does is grant Pyongyang the resources to break out of an agreement at the later date.
In an ideal world, the US would be able to achieve a balance of all its goals with minimum concessions. But that is not reality. The priority should be limiting and rolling back the North’s nuclear and missile programmes through a verifiable agreement.
If the only way to do that is for Washington to adjust its deterrence and assurance strategy with allies and roll back its maximum pressure campaign through sanctions waivers, then so be it.
RUSI will be diving into this in more detail over the coming months. For more information, see here.
Banner image: Kim Yo-jong, top right, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, sits just behind US Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Courtesy of Prensa Internacional/ZUMA Wire/PA Images
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.