- - Monday, March 25, 2019

The goal of the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Houston this month, is “to keep America safe, to keep South Korea and Japan from being under this threat.” That’s a sound objective, but after making solid progress toward that end in 2018, the Trump team has more recently reverted to old bad habits of Washington policy that are more likely to achieve the opposite effect.

First, President Trump deserves credit for ignoring the failed Washington playbook and seizing the opportunity to engage constructively with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Following the conventional wisdom of our foreign policy elites, who view diplomacy as a gift reserved for favored nations, would have ensured that there would be little chance of peace on the peninsula. The status quo of perpetual tension and potential of military conflict would remain fully intact. Trump’s engagement has helped make room for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to have three productive summits with Kim, creating important openings of the repressive regime. The threat of war today seems lower — and more gains for U.S. and Asian security are possible — because of this shift in rhetoric since the volatile month of December 2017.

Whether that progress continues or is squandered, however, depends on what actions the White House takes next. Prior to the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, it appeared the administration would continue to reinforce positive trends. Troublingly, the diplomatic situation has deteriorated in the weeks since.

National Security Advisor John Bolton in particular has signaled a reversion to the more coercive and unrealistic approach, indicating in early March that the one acceptable outcome would be unilateral, up-front disarmament by North Korea. Only after complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) would the United States consider removing any sanctions.

Past presidents, Mr. Bolton added, had made policy mistakes in handling Pyongyang, “and one of those mistakes is falling for the North Korean action for action ploy.” Phased implementation of North Korean steps towards peace and denuclearization will apparently not be met by phased relief of sanctions by Washington — not if Mr. Bolton has any say in the matter. This is a non-starter designed to thwart, not advance, the diplomatic process currently underway.

While some applauded this reversal to the status quo as a sign of strength, its most likely effect is to guarantee diplomatic failure and a stop in movement toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. America remains safe, but there is an opportunity for the administration to achieve other positive outcomes for the United States. Achieving those gains requires acknowledging geopolitical reality, which Mr. Bolton and many in the Washington establishment are keen to deny.

First, despite his claims to the contrary, there is no proof Mr. Kim actually ever intends to fully denuclearize according to our interpretation of CVID. Our preferences notwithstanding, surrendering his nuclear deterrent is not a logical course for Mr. Kim. Why would he eliminate the arsenal North Korea spent decades building in exchange for mere promises? Why would he expose himself to the risk of regime change that arsenal is designed to deter?

But Washington should also recognize that while Mr. Kim hasn’t committed to our version of CVID, his actions very much indicate a desire for detente, normalization of international relations, and an opening of his economy. These aims create significant diplomatic opportunity for the United States to achieve peace on the peninsula and the expansion of economic opportunity for our country.

A realistic, rational policy that gives us the best chance to accomplish these objectives would be grounded in deterrence. The United States’ overwhelming superiority in conventional and nuclear military power will deter Mr. Kim from ever launching an unprovoked war; doing so would result in the immediate destruction of his regime, as he well knows.

Washington should also encourage and facilitate continued cultural and economic development between North and South Korea. Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim have considered a number of initiatives that would help normalize Pyongyang, such as re-establishing the tourist zone at Mt. Kumgang, reopening the joint economic zone in the Kaesong Industrial Region, and the establishment of rail lines between the countries.

A productive North Korea policy would also include continued bilateral diplomacy with North Korea — including the exchange of diplomatic liaison offices — as well as multi-lateral engagement with South Korea, Japan, and China.

These steps can keep tensions low, reduce the chance of dangerous misunderstandings, and improve the prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Many years into the future, once peace has solidified, it is conceivable the peninsula could be fully denuclearized. This is an eventual goal.

Trying to force denuclearization up front virtually guarantees failure, derails hopes for peace on the Korean Peninsula, and increases the chances that confrontation could one day lead to miscalculation — which could lead to the worst possible outcome for America and the nations in the region: (potentially nuclear) war. The only way America loses in this situation is if we resort to an unprovoked military attack on North Korea. We win, however, by maintaining our never-blinking military deterrence and concurrently pursuing peace and the opening of the North Korean regime. Patience and a cold calculation of conditions as they are will win the day.

• Daniel L. Davis, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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