Donald Trump might have found the art of a deal with North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during a meeting at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. - RC1484CCD790
Editor's note:

National Security Advisor John Bolton, as well as both Democrats and other Republicans, should support the basic idea of a compromise that caps the North Korean arsenal in exchange for partial sanctions relief, writes Michael O’Hanlon in USA Today.

According to recent news reports, following the third meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which occurred last week at the Korean DMZ, the Trump administration has a new idea about how to negotiate with Kim. Rather than pursue complete elimination of all of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the Trump administration would aim for a more modest trade as at least an interim step. It would reportedly require North Korea to verifiably dismantle all capabilities it possesses to make more bombs, in exchange for a partial lifting of the sanctions that have driven North Korea’s economy into the tank.

We do not really know for sure that this proposal is formal Trump policy. Indeed, national security advisor John Bolton has just tweeted his apparent wariness. But it is hard to see why Kim and Trump keep talking if they are not moving towards this kind of compromise. The terms of such an agreement would follow logically from the February Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, where the North offered to dismantle some of its nuclear production capability in exchange for a lifting of all sanctions, and then President Trump walked. Washington’s new proposal would simply toughen and improve the terms of this kind of trade, requiring the dismantlement of all plutonium and enriched uranium infrastructure in exchange for a lifting of some of the sanctions.

A smart deal

Provided that verification is good, and that some sanctions are retained even after such an agreement was struck, this would be a smart deal. It would not be perfect, and would not achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea that Trump initially insisted upon. But it would identify, and pursue, the intersection of what is realistic with what is desirable. It would reduce the risks of war and limit the damage done by nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia.

North Korea has an estimated 20 to 60 nuclear bombs today—and is still making more as best we can tell. It views those weapons as the proud legacy of Kim’s father and grandfather, and the ultimate insurance that the younger Kim will not suffer the fate of Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi, both of whom wound up dead after fighting the United States without nuclear weapons. It is hard to see North Korea giving up those bombs even if sanctions remain in place indefinitely (though admittedly we cannot be sure). North Koreans have talked about being willing to eat grass to keep their nuclear arsenal. Kim and his cronies will always have their caviar and cognac, but there can be little doubt that the North Korean leader would be willing to see his own people continue to suffer as long as he keeps hold of his ultimate guarantee of political and personal survival. Striving for complete North Korean denuclearization is a bridge too far.

But perhaps Kim has concluded that 20 to 60 (or 70, or 80!) bombs is enough. And perhaps he is also willing to make permanent his moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, provided the United States and South Korea cap the size of their military exercises.

We can live with such a deal, too. If North Korea can be persuaded to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, its future arsenal will be forever capped at or below its current size. Trump could then argue that his North Korean deal was better than Obama’s Iran deal, because the former placed permanent limits on North Korea, whereas the latter’s provisions largely would be lifted by 2023-25.  Also, for all of North Korea’s many flaws, it has not perpetrated ongoing terrorism or other forms of violence in the region since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.

A realistic solution

Trump would be wise not to boast too much about a deal that left one of the world’s worst dictators in possession of nuclear bombs and allowed it to resume trade and investment with other nations. But by giving North Korea a stake in peace, and a stable northeast Asia, it would on balance probably reduce the risks of war. So might President Trump’s unorthodox style of diplomacy with Kim—which may verge on the distasteful in some ways, but also probably does improve trust somewhat better the two longtime foes.

Under such a deal, U.N. sanctions that have been imposed in recent years would presumably first be suspended, then lifted. It is these sanctions that really hurt North Korea, because they prevent its normal economic dealings with China and South Korea in particular, as well as with Russia and some Southeast Asian nations. As a result of these sanctions, imposed largely in 2016 and 2017, North Korea’s trade appears to have shrunk by more than half despite some cheating and sanctions evasion.

But most U.S. sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea over the decades should remain in effect even after the U.N. sanctions are gone. Most American aid, trade, investment, and interaction should still be banned under such an accord. So should assistance from organizations like the World Bank, where the United States has a major influence. North Korea would not be formally recognized as a nuclear-weapons state. Any peace treaty and any U.S. diplomatic presence would be viewed as matter-of-fact mechanisms to enhance future communication, not as great accomplishments to celebrate. North Korea would still be viewed as a pariah nation, armed to the teeth and brutal in its treatment of its own people. Only when North Korea gives up all its bombs, scales back its threatening conventional and chemical weapons, and starts to open up its gulag-style prisons would truly normal relations become possible with America. Only then would the U.S. sanctions be lifted. That day may not arrive for decades, admittedly.

If President Trump is leaning towards such a deal, John Bolton will still have a useful role to play in making sure that Washington does not give away the store in the process. But Bolton, and Democrats as well as other Republicans, should support the basic idea of a compromise that caps the North Korean arsenal in exchange for partial sanctions relief.  Personally I wouldn’t give anyone a Nobel Peace Prize for it. But it would be better than any realistic alternative, and better than any deal we’ve managed to strike with North Korea to date.