- - Thursday, February 14, 2019


There are reasons for concern about a second U.S.-North Korea summit. If there is no tangible movement on denuclearization, public support for dialogue with North Korea will erode quickly, with the potential for a return to a policy of “maximum pressure.” If this were to happen, it would be a major diplomatic failure with far reaching consequences.

In 2017, when North Korea had 18 ballistic missile launches, to include two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) launches capable of reaching the United States, and a test of a thermonuclear warhead, the prospect of military conflict with North Korea was real.

Fortunately, Kim Jong-un quickly pivoted, in his January 2018 New Year’s address, to an appeal for better relations with South Korea and the United States, stating that a nuclear North Korea could now focus exclusively on economic development. What followed was an unprecedented diplomatic outreach, by a heretofore reclusive leader, that included three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, four meetings in China with President Xi Jinping and a summit with President Donald Trump, the first time a sitting U.S. president met with a leader of North Korea.

That June 2018 summit in Singapore resulted in a joint statement that committed North Korea to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while committing the United States to the establishment of a new bilateral relationship of peace and prosperity while, also, working to establish a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

The seven months after the June summit were somewhat encouraging, with no missile launches or nuclear tests. What was disappointing during this period was the lack of any movement on the core issue: Denuclearization. In fact, North Korea continued to produce fissile material, both plutonium and highly enriched uranium, for weapons. Also disappointing was the absence of even one meeting between the lead negotiators from the United States and North Korea. Fortunately, this changed during early February 2019 when U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun met in Pyongyang with his new counterpart, Kim Hyok-chol.

All eyes will be on the upcoming Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi of Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. No one wants only the pomp and ceremony of these two leaders embracing and producing empty words. What’s expected is movement on the core issue of complete denuclearization, which North Korea knows is complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and facilities, with a verification agreement that permits nuclear monitors to visit suspect non-declared nuclear sites.

What North Korea expects is movement from the United States on their core issues: Security assurances and economic development assistance. All this is achievable and within reach, if North Korea is serious about complete and verifiable denuclearization and the United States, in a spirit of “actions for actions” is prepared to provide North Korea with the security assurances they want and need if there’s to be progress on denuclearization.

And progress on denuclearization will permit progress on improved U.S.-North Korea bilateral relations and the eventual establishment of a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

Much has been said about what each side could propose at the upcoming summit in Hanoi. Realistically, however, what Mr. Kim has to hear is that the United States will never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, and that complete and verifiable denuclearization is not negotiable.

Mr. Kim also has to hear what the United States is prepared to offer in terms of security assurances and economic development assistance. If North Korea views its nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival, then it’s important that the United States make the case as to why retaining nuclear weapons will make North Korea less secure.

Indeed, eventually having a normal relationship with the United States and having access to international financial institutions should be deliverables of interest to a young Kim schooled in Switzerland and very mindful of North Korea’s dire economic situation.

Thus, any communique from this second summit that reaffirms North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, as defined by the United States, and commits the United States to an eventual normal bilateral relationship with North Korea and a peace treaty ending the Korean War, will be viewed as positive developments. The particulars, given the complexity of the issues, will have to be worked out by the lead negotiators who should be charged with meeting routinely, so that within a certain period of time a roadmap, with timelines, can be established that implements the June 12 Singapore Joint Statement.

Success at the upcoming summit is possible and likely. However, any wavering on the core issue of complete and verifiable denuclearization would be a serious setback.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.

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