North Koreans tease nuclear weapons concessions. Should Trump believe them?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un greets a member of the special delegation of South Korea's President at a dinner in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 6, 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. - RC1CEB270390
Editor's note:

President Trump is to be credited for his effective international sanctions campaign against North Korea, writes Michael O’Hanlon, but it is very hard to believe that it has brought Pyongyang to its knees so quickly. Nor is it credible that Kim has turned into a nice guy so fast. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.

After weeks of charm diplomacy during and immediately after the Pyeongchang Olympics, North Korea has now offered up a stunner: an offer to get rid of its nuclear weapons entirely if the Korean standoff can somehow be ended and the nation’s security guaranteed. And in another, even bigger stunner, President Trump himself has agreed to meet with North Korean President Kim Jong Un—by May.

The world is spinning upside down.

What is going on here? If most of this seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. Trump is to be credited for his effective international sanctions campaign against North Korea, but it is very hard to believe that it has brought Pyongyang to its knees so quickly. Nor is it credible that Kim has turned into a nice guy so fast.

Most likely, sensing its growing isolation, North Korea has decided to try new tactics without changing its underlying strategy. Whether North Korea really still aspires to a forceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, it probably still does intend to remain a nuclear-armed, hypermilitarized and menacing dictatorship. Kim probably hopes that conveying a genuine willingness to talk will be enough to prevent further tightening of international sanctions, at a time when the North Korean strongman might have genuinely started to worry about where his country’s economy is headed.

Kim might not care much about the well-being of his own people, but he does care about ensuring enough resources to support his military, his advanced-weapons programs and the lavish lifestyles of the ruling elite. Sanctions imposed after North Korea’s three intercontinental ballistic missile launches and one nuclear test of 2017 could cut key areas of North Korean trade by a third or more this year—enough to make a real difference, if they are truly implemented and enforced.

Whether Kim really thinks he can get sanctions rolled back, he probably does suspect that Beijing and Seoul would both welcome an excuse not to tighten enforcement of existing sanctions any more than they already have. He probably also senses that as long as talks are a realistic prospect, Seoul will not want to conduct the usual U.S.-South Korea springtime military exercises that were already delayed once due to the Winter Olympics.

So we should be very wary. Yet the United States cannot just dismiss the North Korean offer as gamesmanship. For one thing, it might not be. Hope springs eternal.

Second, and even more important, were Washington to dismiss talks out of hand, North Korea would probably then succeed in driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea, with its pro-détente president. China, responsible for 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, could also become less willing to keep tightening the economic noose around North Korea.

We would look unreasonable. The recent memory of Trump’s locked-and-loaded and fire-and-fury statements, as well as his claims of having a bigger nuclear button than Kim does, would further erode our ability to lead the coalition pressuring Pyongyang.

Thus, we should talk, and do so without insisting on preconditions beyond a North Korean moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. However, the United States needs to be vigilant, and stay in close contact with South Korea and Japan as well as other key partners, about several core principles:

  • Complete North Korean denuclearization would be wonderful. But ending the Washington-Seoul alliance and withdrawing all U.S. troops from the peninsula is too high a price to pay to achieve it. The North Korean conventional military threat predated its nuclear weapons program, and it was that threat that led to the creation of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. A long as it endures near its current size and scale, an American military capability should help counter it. Otherwise, Seoul could again be vulnerable to Pyongyang intimidation or coercion, based on the enduring threat of artillery and conventionally armed missiles (even if South Korea’s military today is probably strong enough to fend off any invasion attempt).
  • As Brookings Institution senior fellow Bob Einhorn and I have argued, suspending large U.S.-South Korean military exercises for an extended period is OK, because we can largely compensate with an increase in smaller exercises. However, this should be temporary. There is no equivalence between perfectly justifiable allied exercises, on the one hand, and North Korean missile and nuclear tests on the other. Hence, we need to avoid creating any sense of quid pro quo. Large joint exercises, which happen twice annually, should resume by next year unless we have a binding deal by then.
  • Since actual North Korean denuclearization is very unlikely anytime soon, an interim deal that caps its missile and nuclear programs without eliminating current warhead stocks would be an acceptable outcome of any first round of talks. But such a deal would require serious verification mechanisms to ensure that North Korea has stopped enriching uranium or producing plutonium. We also could not pay too high a price for such an interim deal. Some United Nations sanctions could be relaxed as part of any such accord, but U.S. sanctions should stay in effect until complete denuclearization is achieved.

With clear benchmarks such as these, we need not fear talks—and we need not risk being outmaneuvered by an apparent Pyongyang charm offensive that is probably more of a cunning ruse than a genuine change of heart. And maybe, just maybe, we can persuade North Korea to modify its most egregious behavior and cap its most dangerous weapons programs.

However imperfect such an outcome, Trump will have my vote for the Nobel Peace Prize if he can achieve it.