A nuclear trade
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un grabbed global media attention on Sunday through a short yet dramatic meeting at the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom. Can the leaders strike a monumental nuclear deal in the foreseeable future?
Trump and Kim will likely meet again as long as international sanctions continue to choke the Pyongyang regime. Kim warned that his country would seek a new path if Washington fails to suggest “a new calculus” in the denuclearization talks by the end of this year. But he knows better than anyone else what dangers that new path may bring. If North Korea resumes nuclear experiments and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, the United States may respond with military action.
No matter how much North Korea improves its ties with China and Russia, the two allies can hardly stop international sanctions, as they neither have the will nor power to do so except by offering diplomatic help to Pyongyang. For the United States’ part, Trump has no reason to stop negotiating with Kim as he is eager to go down in history as the first American president to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue.
Yet a fourth North Korea-U.S. summit likely won’t happen soon because Kim and Trump would not want to meet without a full guarantee of signing a nuclear deal. If Kim returns home empty-handed again like he did in Hanoi, Vietnam, it would dent his leadership and possibly lead to instability in North Korea. The young leader won’t easily drop his earlier proposal in Hanoi — dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for easing of all the sanctions imposed since 2016. Meanwhile, the United States will likely wait until the sanctions help weaken North Korea’s position. Washington will not back down from its proposal that sanctions relief will only follow North Korea’s full denuclearization. For a White House chief vying for re-election next year, a no-deal-summit with Kim could provide fodder for criticism in the United States.
For a successful next summit, both countries will have to narrow their differences through working-level negotiations. Above all, Pyongyang will have to propose an advanced negotiating plan or accept Washington’s. That plan should at least include these details.
First, there should be a clear definition of “complete denuclearization.” Pyongyang must admit that complete denuclearization encompasses the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons, missiles, as well as all of related materials and facilities. Only then can Washington show flexibility to take into account Pyongyang’s position on how to implement the plan.
Second, Pyongyang must provide information on a full inventory of its nuclear weapons and materials. Based on the list, Washington will see what’s on the table and draw up a denuclearization roadmap. Through the roadmap, the United States will be able to provide a reward for each denuclearization step taken by the North, such as sanctions relief, economic support and security guarantees.
If Pyongyang refuses to submit a full list, it can divide the list into pieces and provide Washington with information on each category of the roadmap.
For instance, in the first stage of the denuclearization roadmap, North Korea may provide information on its nuclear facilities and on how to dismantle them; in the second stage, information on its existing nuclear weapons and missiles and how to scrap them; and in the third stage, information on its nuclear materials and how to destroy them.
If North Korea agrees to the above, a step-by-step approach to denuclearization with each step reciprocated by a reward from the United States could be possible. That means Washington will have to decide along with international society what reciprocal measure to offer to Pyongyang for each denuclearization step it takes. Those incentives will have to be specified in the Washington-Pyongyang negotiation plan for denuclearization talks.
Easing sanctions after North Korea’s complete denuclearization, which the Trump administration is currently trying to pursue, is ideal yet unrealistic. It is time the United States considers what sanctions to ease in return for Pyongyang dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear facilities. What is important is that the United States should carefully calculate how an easing of sanctions will affect the North Korean economy and the Kim regime. If the sanctions relief helps the North too much, the denuclearization talks on reaching the next step in the roadmap may lose steam.
A reasonable deal would be North Korea tearing down Yongbyon in return for reopening the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex. Yet the total amount of foreign exchange earnings Pyongyang receive through the industrial park should not exceed the amount it received before the sanctions.
There’s always a chance to denuclearize North Korea as long as international sanctions continue to cripple its economy. As long as the door to that chance is opened, one of the best ways to reach a nuclear deal is to wisely combine sanctions and diplomacy.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 3, Page 31