Kim-Trump Summit: Will David Defeat Goliath?

Apocalyptic anxiety about inevitable war on the Korean peninsula late last year is now about to give way to elation and waiting for a positive shift in the Korean peaceful settlement. The temptation is great, but for me, the exaggerated optimism characterizing the disputes of the Korean issue, is actually a point of concern.

In 2017, when a lot of negativism was seen globally, everyone tended to believe that both parties to the conflict were bluffing and upping the ante in order to initiate serious bargaining. Kim Jong-un seems to be winning the game: he has the trump card in the form of intercontinental missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the American cities, even though they are not combat ready yet.    

Pyongyang thinks that it was this factor (plus Trump’s “unorthodox” nature and the political change in South Korea, which is favourable for the DPRK) which made the Americans agree to hold a summit, something they have evaded for many years. That is why North Korea intends to negotiate with the US from a position of power, as a “strategically equal,” no matter how hilarious it may sound. Because even if negotiations fail, the situation is not going to change radically: North Koreans are not afraid of war, and the US sanction tools have almost reached their ceiling. Anyway, the regime survival seems to be more important for North Korea (and it is quite possible even in case of economic blockade) than national prosperity. North Korean administration tends to think that the Americans will have to make some concessions eventually, due to their inability to master the issue in any other way except for holding negotiations. However, the DPRK has a wider range of means intended to make the US government’s life harder in case it rejects peace settlement.      

The chance should not be missed, and it all depends on the US. We have been waiting for it since 1994, for 25 years already. Hopefully, the negotiation process will be a success, and we do not have to wait for another 25 years. As discussions at the Russian-US dialogue on the nuclear issues, held on June 8-9, 2018 in Moscow showed, American experts understand it as well.

In order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, one has to consider unequal positions of the parties involved (North Korea deals with an existential problem, while for the United States this is one of potentially dangerous challenges) and asymmetry in making concessions: North Korea is likely to make some irreversible steps, while concessions made by the US administration, as seen from general practice, can be reverted by a single political decision.       

So what can be done about it? Maybe, the DPRK and the US should work out a joint plan of denuclearization and settlement. North Korea probably has such a roadmap already. It can be logical enough and include, for instance, the following successive steps:

  • Cessation of nuclear tests

  • Elimination of nuclear test ranges

  • Cessation of the production of nuclear weapons

  • Cessation of the production of fissile materials

  • Dismantling of military nuclear facilities

  • Reduction of quantity of fissile materials (taking them abroad and liquidation)

  • Reduction of nuclear weapons

  • Complete elimination of nuclear weapons

Here are the specific steps that the DPRK can propose to the Americans. The same can be predicted in terms of “demissilization”:

  • Cessation of the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles

  • Reduction of the production of missiles of other types

  • ICBM elimination

  • Agreement for a verified satellite programme

  • Opening production of missile equipment for inspection, etc.

All or some of the abovementioned steps can be taken in the next 2-3 years, before the next US presidential elections.

This is going to be a specific and friendly programme, demonstrating the DPRK’s goodwill. And its charismatic leader has been promising to stick to his obligations.

And what does the US have to offer in exchange? Does it have a roadmap for this as well?    

Looks like the Americans do not have one by now, even though some of the terms have already been announced, concerning verification, engaging North Korean scientists, providing confidence-building measures, using the Nunn-Lugar Program as an example, dismantling nuclear facilities and further humanization (overcoming of negative stereotypes with regard to the DPRK), gradual lifting of sanctions, economic and humanitarian assistance until complete normalization.    

Ideas of a new peace regime (yet, in the scope of only three countries participating: the DPRK, South Korea and the US – which is unlikely to make China happy) are being discussed. There have been many different expert proposals, but not a single plan that could be proposed to the North Koreans. By the way, the question of guarantees of non-violation of such commitments is still open.

Until the DPRK receives such guarantees for the “matter of trade” they are going to get after they go through denuclearization, it will be not be so easy to come up with a decision. It is hard to tell whether Trump has enough political will, as well as a strategically thinking administration, to prepare such a roadmap to be proposed to the North Koreans.

Besides, implementation of a process of mutual concessions requires a number of meetings and summits, providing guarantees to other countries, including China and Russia. And it is still a question whether the American establishment is ready for that.

If there is no such plan, it is very likely for the US and the DPRK to start another round of tug-of-war, but the results are going to lead to a new level of confrontation. Even if the process starts, the US will hardly ever provide a sustained compliance of its obligations, which can give North Korea a lot of pretexts to quit the dialogue.

So I think that by November 2020, by the next presidential election in the United States, North Korea will remain a nuclear power, with a reduced or increased (in the worst-case scenario) nuclear arsenal. And the next US president will have to take this into account. If Trump is re-elected, nothing will change.

Such a possibility should be at least kept in perspective. Moreover, it should not prevent hard everyday work. It is the US specifically, which has to implement a range of such measures, no matter how unpleasant it is for the US administration, the US Congress and the public, which considers the DPRK the worst evil on Earth.    

If this does not happen, Kim Jon-un is going to reach his objective: after negotiations with the US end in a failure, the DPRK will legitimately become and remain a nuclear state. Maybe, this is the North Korean “Plan B” or the “hidden agenda,” which can break the unipolar world order, and thus David will defeat Goliath.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.