National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will host a trilateral meeting next week between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan as part of the Biden Administration’s ongoing effort to establish its North Korea policy. Though Washington’s overwhelming advantage in nuclear and conventional military power will deter Pyongyang indefinitely, Biden has the chance to significantly lower the risk of war and increase the chances for peace in Korea by choosing a policy that features deft diplomacy.
There is one key point that Biden’s foreign policy team must keep in mind, however, if it wants to break from decades of failure in America’s engagement with North Korea: zero-sum, up-front demands for full denuclearization by North Korea before discussing any relief will guarantee failure.
Negotiations involve engaging in give-and-take until each side is sufficiently satisfied with the outcome. It necessarily means that neither side will get all it wants and requires that both sides get something important to them – otherwise, there is no deal.
One major reason American diplomacy has been spectacularly fruitless for the past several decades is that all too often we press for getting everything while giving nothing and acting surprised when we fail to obtain our objectives.
If we want to even have an outside shot at the ultimate denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, America’s diplomats are going to have to jettison that self-defeating mentality and engage in genuine, realistic diplomacy with Pyongyang. If we demonstrate a willingness to give-and-take, we will have a chance to significantly improve the situation in Korea – but that’s going to mean acknowledging, upfront, that unless Kim Jong Un comes out of talks with something important to him, we will never get what we want.
Required v. Preferred Outcomes
Before Biden’s negotiating team starts engaging with its North Korean counterparts, it is important to distinguish its must-have objectives from its ideal, or nice-to-have objectives.
The good news for America is that obtaining the must-have outcome can be produced entirely by our own means – but that with shrewd diplomacy there is a reasonable chance we can also get most or all of our ideal aims.
The overriding, must-have priority for President Biden is to prevent war on the Korean peninsula, protect our freedom, and preserve America’s global economic opportunities. Those outcomes can be guaranteed by the United States’ overwhelming superiority in both nuclear and conventional military power over North Korea.
Whatever the size of their nuclear arsenal, it is dwarfed by ours. Kim Jong Un knows that if he ever unleashes one nuclear weapon, he and his country would be incinerated by a massive nuclear response. Kim wants power and wants to survive: he is not suicidal and will not launch an attack that would guarantee his death. That works to our advantage in negotiating for the objectives we prefer.
Why the U.S. Failed to Achieve a Breakthrough during Trump’s Term
According to Korean officials I spoke to in Hanoi in 2019, President Moon hoped for a major breakthrough but was going to be satisfied with even an incremental advancement of the progress, having already planned to announce, in as few as three weeks following the summit, a new meeting between Moon and Kim. South Korean authorities were optimistic that the meeting between the heads of state would have continued the progress and produced meaningful new cooperation between North and South. Kim, it was clear, had every expectation of success in Hanoi.
Prior to Hanoi, Kim had made a considerable personal investment in breaking from the “hermit kingdom” isolation of the past. He met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the intra-Korean border and conducted the first-ever meeting with a sitting U.S. president in Singapore in 2018.
Upon arrival in Hanoi, Kim engaged in another first for a North Korean leader: he took unvetted questions for a live international press corps. When asked if he really intended to eventually give up his nuclear arsenal, Kim said, “if I wasn’t ready for such a thing, I wouldn’t be here.” We have so far made lots of effort, he said, adding “and it’s time to show them (results).” Just hours later, all the hope and optimism had been destroyed.
Then-national security advisor John Bolton had convinced Trump not to accept incremental success, but to shoot for maximalist gains, demanding full denuclearization from Kim, upfront, before receiving anything in return. The response from Kim’s regime was as quick as it was predictable.
Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said that Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo had “created the atmosphere of hostility and mistrust and, therefore, obstructed the constructive effort for negotiations between the supreme leaders of North Korea and the United States.” The promising window for a diplomatic breakthrough had been shattered. There would be no more serious discussions between the two sides for the remainder of Trump’s term.
How Biden Can Change the Dynamics for Our Advantage
Biden has a chance to change the dynamic. If his team is deft in its diplomatic approach, it is possible – though far from certain – to engage with North Korea, not from scratch, but from the potential that existed prior to Hanoi. First and foremost, Biden must completely abandon the failure-in-a-box idea of demanding full denuclearization from North Korea as an entry point. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be a goal, however.
The Singapore Summit final communique that Kim signed in 2018 expressly reiterated the commitment he had made to Moon months earlier, to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Words matter. Kim twice agreed, in writing, to “work towards” denuclearization, never to give them up in one act while getting nothing in return. Biden can leverage Kim’s willingness to work towards the goal we likewise seek and move forward from the wreckage Bolton left in 2019. Biden already has an invested partner eager to go down that path.
In a speech on Friday from Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Moon said that he is aware that, “people are concerned about North Korea’s missile launches [on Thursday],” but added that, “now is the time for South and North Korea and the US to ramp up efforts to continue talks.” At the trilateral meeting in Washington next week, the United States and South Korea have a chance to form a unified plan leading to a realistic peace on the Korean peninsula. To set the stage for finding a mutually agreeable plan, the two sides must agree to:
-A reaffirmation by all parties that complete denuclearization remains the ultimate goal. Such a target is impossible in the current environment, frankly speaking. Achieving it won’t come quickly or easily, but at least possible in the long term if peace is established.
-An agreement to engage in step-by-step diplomacy, in which initial steps are relatively small, but build progressively over time. Each side will take an action, in good faith, and be followed by meaningful action by the other.
-The idea that North Korea will renew its commitment to refrain from ICBM and nuclear testing.
-That the U.S. not to seek regime change in North Korea.
From this basis, the U.S. and North Korea should set the diplomatic gears in motion working towards several phase I objectives: an end-of-war declaration, officially ending the 1953 Korean War; establishing diplomatic liaison offices for each country in Pyongyang and Washington; Pyongyang verifiably dismantling its main reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for commensurate, targeted sanctions relief.
By themselves, the successful accomplishment of these initial steps would not eliminate the challenges each country has with the other, but they would represent a major step in the right direction and invest each side in continued success.
The Trust Deficit & What Should Happen Next
There remains great skepticism in both Washington and Pyongyang that either side can be trusted. Many in America believe that North Korea always lies and cheats, and thus nothing short of military pressure can force them to give up their nukes.
North Korea believes the U.S. can’t be trusted to live up to its commitments and believes the only way to guarantee their safety is with an active nuclear deterrent. It will take enormous courage, leadership – and patience – on both sides, to overcome decades of mistrust.
But the cost of failure could be war. A war no one wants and in which every party would lose, egregiously. Building trust will take many years and likely require low-cost baby steps initially. Those small steps can increase in time to more substantive measures and may eventually lead to peace. Failure to try, however, will condemn all sides to the status quo of tensions, mistrust, and the risk of war.
Daniel L. Davis is a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times and the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” The views shared in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent any group. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.