After three months of palace intrigue, speculation and on-again-off-again pronouncements, the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is finally upon us. The core question is whether this historic meeting between two idiosyncratic leaders who were just months ago exchanging taunts like “Little Rocket Man” and “dotard,” and one-upping each other’s threats of nuclear annihilation, can help find a path toward denuclearization and stability for the Korean Peninsula.
We both worked in the Obama White House but this is not a partisan matter and we are rooting wholeheartedly for this administration’s success. Nobody will benefit if the leaders walk away from the summit disappointed and frustrated, and there’s certainly some risk of that. If the parties try to accomplish too much in Singapore, or if they fail to identify a realistic game plan for the period that follows, then they could return to the escalating standoff that characterized their relations throughout 2017. But toxic frustration is not the only alternative. As a senior U.S. diplomat recently told us, if the complete failure to reach agreement is on one end of the spectrum of possibilities, and a “bad deal” for the United States is on the other, there is plenty of space for a positive result in the middle.
We agree. In a report authored for International Crisis Group, we try to steer the parties toward a so-called “deep freeze” that each party might be able to claim as its own version of that middle ground.
First, during the summit, the two leaders should agree on a short declaration of principles that sets forth each party’s strategic priorities, putting off talk for now of a full-blown treaty — something impossible to do responsibly in the given time. In Washington’s case, the priority would no doubt be a commitment to denuclearization. Pyongyang, which above all else wants a redefined political and security relationship with Washington, might ask the United States to affirm that it harbors no “hostile intent” toward North Korea. The parties could commit to sustain the testing pause already in place and other confidence-building measures — perhaps a ratcheting back of some aspects of joint U.S-South Korean military exercises. And the leaders could commit to meet again.
But while this would set a helpful frame for future talks, Washington and Pyongyang have generated similar documents in the past, and North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced anyway. So beyond the declaration, the parties need to come up with a plan for what needs to happen after the summit so that the odds for success are better this time around. Here again, the plan needs to be informed by a healthy dose of realism. It took Pyongyang 70 years to acquire a nuclear capability that it regards as fundamental to its security, and there are limits to how far and how fast it will go down a new path. The strategic implications are too great, the bilateral trust deficit is too deep, and the North Korean nuclear program is too big and advanced to follow the path that Libya took in 2003 and 2004, when it dismantled its nuclear infrastructure in short order and shipped much of it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That is why we believe it may be useful to aim for a way station that would move the parties in the direction of denuclearization without getting them all the way there in one fell swoop.
Our road map to a “deep freeze” would bring the parties to a verifiable cap on the production of nuclear weapons, plutonium and enriched uranium, and long-range missiles—i.e., missiles capable of striking the U.S. and whatever other missiles the parties agree should be part of the arrangement. We don’t set a time frame but this could be done even within the current presidential term if the parties set their minds to it. The plan has four steps:
- The first step, which could be done very quickly, would be to flesh out and formally commit to the elements of the current pause that Pyongyang has carried out unilaterally. For example, while North Korea has ceased all missile and nuclear testing, it is not clear whether it intends to refrain from all short- and medium-range missile launches, or from space launcher development. These matters should be clarified.
- The second step, which will take months to negotiate and implement, would involve measures to broaden the scope of the pause and make it more resilient. North Korea would sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thereby committing itself not to test nuclear weapons. And it would permit outside observers or remote monitoring equipment to be introduced at key sites in North Korea, both to begin answering questions about its baseline capabilities and to create some practical obstacles to the resumption of paused activities. (It’s harder to do the wrong thing if observers are on site.)
- The third step, the most challenging of the plan, would involve expanding the monitoring regime to encompass the entirety of North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile production capabilities, including the science and production base that support these capabilities. By the end of the third step, observers or monitors would be permitted wherever they need to be in order to form a comprehensive baseline of the North Korean nuclear and missile-related activities to be frozen. This step is more difficult than either of those preceding it because it would require North Korea to disclose the location of secret activities to the U.S., which theoretically could use that information for military purposes should relations revert to earlier form. North Korea will almost certainly insist on security guarantees before it permits this step.
- The fourth step would be the establishment of a full production cap and freeze for nuclear weapons, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, long-range missiles and other programs and technology related to the capability to produce them. It might also include limits on the production and stockpiling of components required for nuclear and missile production, such as uranium mining, centrifuge production, and the manufacture of missile engines.
In considering this plan, Washington would need to accept that North Korea is not going to move down this path unless it sees the United States taking corresponding measures. For this reason, while Washington has resisted an action-for-action framework for its engagement with Pyongyang, it is the only viable approach. As for what some of those measures might entail, on the political front, North Korea would like to see the United States enter into a peace agreement that ends the Korean War and afford it diplomatic recognition. On the security front, it might want to see the ratcheting back of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, a written renunciation of any first strike by one party against the other, and a commitment not to deploy nuclear-capable bombers and submarines in or around the Korean Peninsula. On the economic front, sanctions relief (especially in key economic sectors like seafood and textiles) will be important. While some measures may be relatively straightforward for the United States to take early on in the process, it may hold others for later in the game.
Our plan might be seen as too little by some who want immediate results. We too want rapid results, but we also caution against magical thinking. North Korea won’t be threatened into giving up its nuclear weapons, and if Washington fails to balance its ambitions with a healthy dose of realism, it could come up empty handed — and risk a relapse into the crisis mode that characterized 2017. That scary period seems like a long way away from this week’s circus atmosphere in Singapore, but the parties could be back there very quickly if talks fail. We hope prudence and patience guide them instead, and they see that moving down a calibrated path in the right direction is better than racing back to a stand-off on the edge of a very dangerous cliff.
Stephen Pomper is the U.S. program director at the International Crisis Group. He was the National Security Council’s senior director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights under President Obama. Jon B. Wolfsthal is a former senior White House official and non-resident scholar at Carnegie.
Originally published in Politico Magazine