Why Should North Korea Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons?

Major Gen. Kim Do-gyun of South Korea, center, shaking hands with a North Korean officer as he crossed the military demarcation line in June. South Korean Defense Ministry, via Getty Images
Major Gen. Kim Do-gyun of South Korea, center, shaking hands with a North Korean officer as he crossed the military demarcation line in June. South Korean Defense Ministry, via Getty Images

South Korea and North Korea recently announced plans for a third summit meeting between their two leaders, to take place in Pyongyang in September. From family reunions to fielding a joint sports team in the upcoming Asian Games, the two Koreas are moving forward with steps to further détente on the peninsula.

By contrast, the United States has done very little in the two months since the Singapore summit between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to advance the relationship.

The United States appears to be waiting for the North to take the next step. But the Trump administration is ignoring the reality that to reach a final deal on the eventual denuclearization of North Korea, the United States must give something substantial in return.

Above all, Washington must take steps to ease North Korean fears of an American attack. Without such a guarantee, the North will never surrender its nuclear arsenal.

Earlier this month, the national security adviser, John Bolton, said that “The United States has lived up to the Singapore declaration. It’s just North Korea that has not taken the steps we feel are necessary to denuclearize.”

And outside of the Trump administration, many other observers have said “I told you so,” blaming North Korea for that lack of progress while arguing that North Korea will never denuclearize. The Washington Post called North Korea’s hesitation to take action “stiff resistance from a North Korean team practiced in the art of delay and obfuscation.”

Let’s take stock of the concessions by the two sides.

North Korea has imposed a moratorium on missile tests and nuclear tests. It has dismantled entrances to a nuclear test site (at Punggye-ri) and a satellite-launching site (at Sohae). There’s evidence of a shutdown of an I.C.B.M.-assembly facility near Pyongyang. It has returned what it says are the remains of 55 United States soldiers killed during the Korean War and has released three American citizens arrested in North Korea as a condition for the summit meeting. Pyongyang has also reduced domestic anti-American propaganda.

The United States has canceled one war game.

All of North Korea’s concessions were unthinkable less than a year ago. It’s clear that Pyongyang is willing to move toward reducing tensions. A United States commander in South Korea, Gen. Vincent Brooks, noted recently that the North has gone more than 200 days “without a provocation,” and that he had seen a slowdown in the operating tempo of North Korean armed forces.

But further North Korean concessions will not happen until the United States makes a move.

North Korea has never offered to unilaterally disarm first, with the hope that the United States would then do something nice in return. Rather, North Korea has consistently called for a “phased” and “synchronous” approach, with “step for step” negotiations.

We are so focused on arguing about whether North Korea will ever completely, verifiably and irreversibly denuclearize that we are overlooking Pyongyang’s reasonable need for guarantees that the United States won’t attack. North Korea has made very clear that it will discuss denuclearization only if the United States demonstrates that it will not invade its country.

Some argue that the United States already made those guarantees to the North in agreements in 2005. Yet those promises were undone by President Trump’s talk of a “bloody nose” option for Pyongyang and claims by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama that “all options remain on the table.”

Washington’s strategy of maximum pressure has reached its limit. North Korea can stop today the concessions it has already made and the rest of the world would look at the United States to respond in some fashion. Without any further North Korean provocations, few countries would be willing to continue heavy pressure, and the United States would be seen as the reluctant negotiating party.

The United States and North Korea are in a better place than they were a year ago. But without concrete action from the United States that deals directly with North Korea’s concerns, it is unlikely that Pyongyang will make any further moves to denuclearize.

David C. Kang is a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Korean Studies Institute. He is the author, most recently, of East Asian Security and American Grand Strategy in the 21st Century.

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