North Korea may be willing to begin denuclearization, and Trump should make a deal

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gives field guidance during his visit to the under construction Yombunjin Hotel in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 17, 2018. KCNA via REUTERS     ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. - RC137035C710
Editor's note:

We should immediately engage in serious talks to see just how serious Kim Jong-un really is about the intriguing and promising offer he made in his recent speech, contends Michael O’Hanlon. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.

In his traditional New Year’s Day speech earlier this week, North Korean strongman leader Kim Jong-un has just made an offer that, if serious, could present an opportunity for President Donald Trump to reach a historic breakthrough in the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula and record his greatest foreign-policy accomplishment as president. 

Kim’s speech was not all sweetness and light. He warned that his patience is not infinite, and that in the absence of diplomatic progress, his country may resort to more confrontational tactics. Little has happened since the famous Singapore summit back in June between Kim and Trump; we seem no closer to a deal on North Korea’s threatening military capabilities now than we did six months ago. Meanwhile, Kim clearly resents and suffers from the tough international sanctions that the Trump administration has convinced the United Nations to impose these last two years, after North Korea’s big missile and nuclear tests of 2017. The latest statistics show that, despite sanctions evasion in multiple quarters, North Korean trade was down as much as half in 2018 compared to the year before.

But Kim held out an olive branch nonetheless. He seems to want a deal, and seems interested in another summit. He was much more specific than ever before about what he might offer in the course of such a tête-à-tête with Trump. So far, North Korea has only offered to place a moratorium on future nuclear and long-range missile tests, which has been a welcome development, but has only talked vaguely about “denuclearization” and has not stopped making more bombs. Now, apparently, Kim would put nuclear production capability on the table as a bargaining chip.

North Korea experts like Jonathan Pollack and Jung Pak have documented how unlikely Kim would be to give up all his nuclear bombs (U.S. intelligence estimates he has as many as 60 by now). They represent the collective accomplishments of a program that Kim’s grandfather and father prioritized when they led North Korea, so giving up all those bombs quickly would almost seem to dishonor the memory and legacy of his forefathers. And perhaps even more importantly, Kim as well as his generals remember the one cardinal mistake Saddam Hussein, Mohammar Quadhafi, and the Taliban all committed—leaving themselves vulnerable in war against the United States because of the lack of a nuclear deterrent. For Kim to give up the bomb, he would need a great deal of confidence that relations will remain peaceful.

There is an opportunity to compromise, relax

Yet there is still a big opportunity for compromise, if Kim is serious about ending production of more bombs. North Korea could stop expanding its nuclear arsenal, and we could relax, then lift some of the sanctions imposed on North Korea over the years, especially the U.N. sanctions that have really cut into North Korean trade with China and South Korea in the last couple years. The goal of complete denuclearization could await another day.

With this approach, the United States would keep enough sanctions in place to stay true to its principle that North Korea cannot be accepted as a nuclear-weapons state; before being fully welcomed into the community of nations, it will in fact have to honor its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and give up all its bombs. Yet as a practical matter, that second stage of nuclear talks can wait for a number of months or years. That is ok. The world will be much safer if North Korea stops enlarging and improving its nuclear and long-range missile arsenals that could threaten not only South Korea and Japan (and the almost 300,000 Americans living in those two countries combined), but also eventually North America.

Trump should take what he can get for now

The real challenge is likely to be verification. We know where some, but not all, of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure is located. As such, international inspectors would have to be allowed to return not only to the Yongbyon location where they have been before, and where North Korea has operated a nuclear reactor to make plutonium as well as centrifuges to enrich uranium. They would also need some degree of free reign to explore other suspicious sites around the country. On the one hand, this would not be an arrangement unique to North Korea; similar provisions are part of the Iran nuclear deal, for example. On the other hand, North Korea has shown extreme nervousness about such inspections in the past.

Another possible problem: John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may consider a deal that only freezes, rather than eliminates, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal inadequate for purposes of American and allied security. But they should reassess, or Trump should overrule them.

This compromise deal would go further than the Iran deal, in fact, if North Korea were willing to see its nuclear production facilities dismantled permanently. Yes, Kim would keep his nukes for a while. But he would have powerful economic and military reasons to behave himself. In this case, taking half a loaf is far more realistic than hoping for a complete denuclearization accord that just isn’t in the cards anytime soon. We should immediately engage in serious talks to see just how serious Kim really is about this intriguing and promising offer.