This is a local re-post of an essay I just wrote for The National Interest. My argument is basically that the North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons unless it gets something very large and very tangible in return. This strikes me as common sense. Nuclear weapons are really valuable to any state, and given how much North Korea is loathed around the world, nukes are even more valuable for its elites to hold regime-change at bay. So they aren’t just going to give them up from Trump’s coastal condos, vague security guarantees, or something other vague future benefit the US might cheat on, as we did during the Agreed Framework and to Kaddaffi.
So we should stop saying CVID, especially demanding it upfront for basically nothing. The North Koreans aren’t stupid. They’ll never make that deal. Instead, we need to have a serious US debate – which isn’t happening – about what commensurate to NK nukes we’d be willing to give up: US airpower in Korea, a shrinkage of USFK, closing bases, and so on. It we don’t want to give up something that valuable – and I don’t want to either – then we can either A) accept the new status quo of a nuclear missilized NK, or B) try to buy the program.
The full essay follows the jump.
US-North Korea negotiations are at a stalemate. American President Donald Trump met North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un twice – once in Singapore in 2018, and once in Hanoi in 2019. Neither summit returned much empirically. There was much goodwill expressed, a few minor swaps struck, and a lot of general relief that the two sides were talking rather than threatening each other as in 2017.
But as I have argued elsewhere, there has been almost no movement on the core strategic issues, which I would define as nuclear warheads, the missiles to carry them, and the launchers from which to fire them. Denuclearization has not occurred, nor does it appear to be imminent. After the failure of the Hanoi summit a few months ago, no one really quite knows where the process stands. US-North Korea engagement seems to be drifting. There may yet be a third Trump-Kim summit, but after two summits with little to show for them, expectations should be correspondingly low for any further meetings.
Our natural impulse is to pin the blame for this on North Korea. And indeed, one could plausibly argue that Kim came to these meetings in bad faith. At Singapore, it was quite obvious that North Korea’s emphasis was on the symbolism of it all. In the run-up to the summit, the North dragged its feet in the technical groups for the final statement, while deeply stage-managing the presentation. At Hanoi, Kim suggested a preposterously one-sided bargain – full sanctions relief in exchange for the deactivation of one aging nuclear production facility. Trump was broadly, and correctly, applauded for rejecting this ‘bad deal.’
But it is also the case that the Americans offered North Korea pretty poor deals at both summits too. At both meetings, the Americans demanded huge concessions from the North Koreans upfront, in exchange for vague future counter-concessions. In the run-up to Singapore, US officials talked regularly about the complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament (CVID) of the North Korean nuclear and missile program. By Hanoi, this had morphed into final, fully verified disarmament (FFVD). Effectively however, these were the same thing – unilateral disarmament.
Yet in exchange for this massive concession, the Americans never offered anything commensurate. The US variously hinted at counter-concessions such as a peace treaty to end the Korean War (in the place of the current, less binding armistice), sanctions relief, diplomatic recognition, aid, vague security guarantees, and so on. These are valuable to North Korea, of course, but none of them seriously measure up to the value of North Korea retaining its nuclear warheads and missiles.
North Korea is a pariah. It is heavily sanctioned. It is surrounded by countries with little sympathy for it, if not open hostility. Other than a highly opportunistic relationship with China, the North has no allies. It basically stands alone in the international system, feared, distrusted, and loathed. For such an isolated country, nuclear weapons are an excellent strategic choice. They offer near-absolute regime security against external attack.
Kim Jong Un appears to be a negotiator. Unlike his father, he genuinely seems to want to bring North Korea in from the cold, at least a little. He seems to want a more stable, less fraught relationship with the region, where North Korea is at least somewhat accepted as a normal state. So he may in fact be willing to give up some of his nuclear warheads and/or missiles. He almost certainly will not give them all up – CVID is a fantasy – but he may be willing to give up some of the program.
But the warheads and missiles are extremely valuable. They give North Korea long-sought regime security against its many opponents. They cost a large fraction of North Korea’s very small GDP to make, and Pyongyang has sought them for almost fifty years. The North even wrote its nuclear weapons into its constitution as point of national security and pride.
As such, the North simply will not surrender them – even some of them – without very serious counter-concessions from the Americans. Such concessions would include ending the US alliance with South Korea, removing US forces from South Korea, removing US air and/or naval power from the South, sanctions relief, a huge aid package, full normalization with the South Korea, the US, and Japan, shrinking the size and/capabilities of the South Korean military, and so on.
All of these are large, politically painful concessions from the US-South Korean side, which no one wants to make. So our side does not debate such possible concessions; instead we just keep demanding CVID over and over again – and the North keeps saying no. At best we are willing to append some vague talk about North Korean modernization or US security guarantees. But the North Koreans are not stupid. They will not surrender something as valuable as nukes without some really valuable and directly tangible in return.
So it is a mark of how unserious the US debate is on North Korea, that there is almost no discussion in the administration, Congress, or US op-ed pages on what painful, upfront, tangible concessions we might make. Is it worth it to trade US airwings in South Korea for twenty North Korean warheads? Maybe thirty? If the North Koreans will surrender 80% of their missile in exchange for the closing of all US bases in South Korea, would that be a good deal? Maybe we should try to buy North Korea’s nukes from them? Would a cash-for-nukes deal be a good one? Or are these deals all so bad, that the status quo is preferable? I don’t know, but this is the conversation we need to have.
That no one is even talking about these types of deep, painful swaps in the US is a bright red flag that we are not serious. Instead, we just keep demanding and demanding that North Korea give their weapons away. Of course, they will not, and so we are stuck. Fifteen months of negotiation has generated no progress, in because the Americans can not bring themselves to countenance a genuinely painful concession. So the North Koreans give us nothing real in return, and here we are, at that same place we started.