The United States must stay the course with North Korea

By Joseph R. DeTrani – – Tuesday, March 5, 2019


The Hanoi summit was a stark reminder that resolving 70 years of hostility with will require more time and effort on the part of the United States and .

Expecting the leaders of both countries, in a few hours of discussions at two summits, to resolve a myriad of historical security issues plaguing our relationship was unrealistic. Certainly, the lack of any substantive dialogue between our lead negotiators for seven months following the June 12, 2018, Singapore Joint Statement, until a few weeks prior to the Hanoi summit, was unfortunate. It should have been a wake-up call that more work was necessary before another leadership conference.

But both countries pushed forward in Hanoi, with demanding sanctions relief on those post-March 2016 United Nations sanctions, imposed in response to the North’s dozens of missile launches and two nuclear tests. The U.S. position on sanctions seemed clear: These United Nations sanctions would be lifted only after complete denuclearization. The discussion of possible work arounds, dealing with humanitarian assistance to seemed possible, however.

Why Kim Jong-un asked for the lifting of these U.N. sanctions, to reciprocate for the North’s offer to verifiably dismantle their Yongbyon nuclear facility, was noteworthy, since obtaining security assurances and a path to normal bilateral relations with the United States previously was ’s principal demand.

The U.S. response was equally noteworthy: A call for to declare all of its nuclear facilities, in addition to Yongbyon, if these sanctions were to be lifted. This would be an offer of a “big deal,” to resolve all extant nuclear and missile issues at the Hanoi summit. It would be an expedited path to final, fully verified complete denuclearization, in return for sanctions relief and a path to normal bilateral relations, and the inherent security assurances that comes with a normal diplomatic relationship.

Mr. Kim wasn’t prepared to accept this offer. His focus was on the “small deal” he offered: Yongbyon for the lifting of those five U.N. sanctions that principally banned the export of iron, titanium, rare earth minerals, seafood, textiles and capped the export of coal, while limiting the import of crude oil and petroleum products.

Given this impasse, the Hanoi summit prematurely ended with no joint statement. However, both and the United States seemed committed to continued negotiations, with apparently prepared to continue its moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests and the United States committed to an end to the annual large scale joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.

It’s important that working-level negotiations commence immediately, which seems likely. Any delay in the resumption of negotiations would be unfortunate. The United States and , during the past 17 years, walked away from negotiations and agreements that were promising but were abruptly terminated, for various reasons. This has instilled a mutual distrust between our countries that persists to this day.

In 2002, the Agreed Framework of 1994 that froze operations at the Yongbyon plutonium facility, was terminated when ’s clandestine Highly Enriched Uranium program was discovered. In 2009, progress with dismantling the Yongbyon plutonium reactor was halted and the Six Party Talks process came to an abrupt end when refused to sign a robust verification protocol that would have permitted nuclear monitors to visit non-declared suspect nuclear sites.

And in 2012, the Leap Day Agreement of Feb. 28 that committed to a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, in exchange for food aid and the resumption of negotiations, came to an end when launched a rocket that put a satellite in orbit on the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung.

In each of these cases, months and years went into negotiations, with some progress on halting ’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Each ended when both countries abruptly walked away from dialogue and negotiations. The result was gaining greater nuclear and missile capabilities, and the international community imposing additional sanctions and further isolating a defiant and threatening .

Hopefully, we’ve all learned from this unfortunate history of failed negotiations with . Yes, sometimes you have to walk away from negotiations, knowing that no deal is better than a bad deal. Currently, however, a good and fair deal with appears achievable, knowing that Kim Jong-un, a young leader who inherited a heavily sanctioned and isolated country in dire economic shape, wants a normal relationship with the United States, with security assurances and economic development assistance.

These are deliverables Mr. Kim views as necessary for the survival of his regime, knowing they are available only if he commits to complete and verifiable nuclear dismantlement. Thus, staying the course with , with even greater patience and resolve, hopefully will prove productive.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with . The views are the authors and not of any government agency or department.

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