For a euphoric moment, it seemed everything was about to change on the Korean Peninsula. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un—two leaders with a flair for the dramatic and a willingness to shatter precedents—fanned expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough that would end a nuclear standoff and open a pathway to peace between the two Koreas.
As someone who has spent years immersed in the problem of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, as secretary of defense and later as a presidential envoy on nuclear issues, I watched events of the past spring with a mix of hope and skepticism.
Now, from the vantage point of summer, that skepticism seems amply justified. The recent Singapore summit was grand theater, but the actual statement signed by the two leaders offered nothing more than a promise of denuclearization, comparable to what North Korea has promised in the past. Just this past weekend, NBC reported that U.S. intelligence officials believe North Korea has secretly ramped up production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons in recent months, and that Kim is actively trying to deceive the U.S. about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
It is important for people to know, however, that hope also remains justified. Expectations of solving a decades-long standoff with a sudden, made-for-TV breakthrough were never very realistic. But recent events have demonstrated something important: The North Koreans are willing to engage seriously, and diplomacy remains by far the most promising path in one of the world’s most dangerous places.
Moving forward with North Korean talks—as the Trump administration and other nations in the region by all means should do—it is worth keeping three main points in mind.
- Everything hasn’t suddenly changed in Pyongyang.
Despite the drama of recent months, the North Koreans have a few clear strategic objectives that have not varied substantially in 20 years. They understandably perceive that two primary goals—preserving the Kim dynasty and commanding international respect—are more reliably advanced with nuclear weapons than without, even if this means sacrificing a secondary objective, an end to punishing economic isolation.
Effective diplomacy will use incentives and disincentives, applied in concert with other countries in the region that have even more at stake than we do, to convince North Korea that its strategic objectives have better prospects by turning away from nuclear weapons. This won’t involve pulling diplomatic rabbits from a hat. It will be a complex, long-term effort, and speculation about who takes the credit and what the Nobel Committee will think of it all is decidedly premature.
- There are no attractive military options.
I write from the vantage point of someone who has prepared military plans against North Korea and been ready to use them. Unlike during the Clinton administration, when North Korea’s nuclear efforts had not yet produced actual bombs, the country now has an estimated 20 to 30 of them, as well as an increasingly sophisticated missile program to deliver them. These weapons, combined with formidable conventional forces, means that any preemptive strike against North Korea would likely escalate into a wider war that could kill millions of people in South Korea and other neighbors. Make no mistake: The United States would “win” such a war, whatever that means, but at an appalling price that we should not risk while other options are at hand.
Nor should we take comfort in the suggestions that missile defense systems could reliably protect us or our allies. Even if this technology worked exactly as promised—an unlikely prospect—there is no missile defense that cannot be defeated by saturating it with even more missiles and decoys.
Finally, there is scant hope in the idea that we could revive a Cold War doctrine, mutual assured destruction, by encouraging South Korea and Japan to build their own nuclear arsenals to deter North Korea. This was an idea that Trump seemed to praise in the 2016 campaign. It would lead inexorably to an arms race, just as it did during the Cold War. Back then, through years of crises and close calls, we avoided blowing up the planet as much by good luck as by good management. We should not test our luck again.
- This moment is perishable.
Trump, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in all deserve credit for helping create a moment of real diplomatic promise. However, I witnessed first-hand how the last equivalent moment of promise curdled unexpectedly into a tragic missed opportunity.
Perhaps a review of that sad history can help us avoid it this time. After serving as Bill Clinton’s defense secretary in his first term—when we came close to a military strike against North Korea before achieving a cessation of its efforts to build nuclear bombs—he asked me to lead a team to find a long-term solution. Working closely with diplomats from other countries in the region, we reached what looked like victory for our security interests based on much the same principles that are being contemplated now: recognition, security assurances that the U.S. would not initiate a military attack against North Korea, and some economic incentives, in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons program. The clock ran out on Clinton’s term in January 2001 before the proposed agreement was made formal. But this bargain seemed so self-evidently in the interests of the United States and its regional allies that I had every reason to believe that President George W. Bush would quickly finish the Clinton administration’s work.
Instead, Washington abandoned that diplomacy and, during both the Bush and Obama administrations, Pyongyang plunged with disturbing success into a bomb- and missile-development program that now gives North Korea the capacity to kill millions of people in neighboring countries and even the United States.
This capacity does not mean they are intending to initiate a nuclear war. North Korea is bombastic and warmongering in its rhetoric, and often ruthless in its tactics. But the regime is not irrational. Its leaders seek survival, not martyrdom. But as long as they possess these weapons in a region infused with intense and long-standing conflicts, the risk of blundering into a nuclear catastrophe through miscalculation or brinkmanship gone awry is unacceptably high.
The best odds for changing this frightening reality—and for not repeating the missed opportunities of 18 years ago—requires clear thinking about what the North Koreans want, and what the United States and its allies would need to have confidence in any deal.
Kim has stated that he seeks major improvements in the economy of North Korea, but he will not accept these at the expense of security. North Korea’s actions have demonstrated that its primary objective is regime survival. For more than three decades and three leaders, North Korea has made major sacrifices to achieve that objective, and, against all odds, has succeeded.
As we enter this critical phase of negotiations, we need to be thinking about how North Korea can achieve its security without nuclear weapons, because that it what they are going to be thinking about. This is not a hopeless task. In my negotiations in 2000, our most persuasive proposals were recognition and security assurances—both were critically important to the negotiators from North Korea. The hurdle is higher today because two decades ago, North Korea could not have been sure that its nuclear development program would be successful.
So the diplomatic problems are more difficult now than they were in 2000, and will require more creative approaches. Perhaps the biggest diplomatic problem the U.S. will face, if we can get North Korea to agree to fully denuclearize, will be the timing of that denuclearization and how we verify the component steps. These steps will be complex, will take many months, if not years, and will require intrusive verification procedures. But the U.S. has negotiated agreements equally difficult with the Soviet Union, so we do have a positive precedent.
And even before achieving a full denuclearization, effective diplomatic engagement with North Korea could yield valuable interim benefits, including a commitment to stop building and testing new weapons and a reduction in tensions with South Korea.
Indeed, one very important difference this time relative to previous negotiations is the critically important role of the North-South discussions. When I was negotiating with the North almost 20 years ago, I could not get the North to treat South Korea as an equal partner in the negotiations; they treated South Korea as entirely subsidiary to the United States. That has dramatically changed. President Moon has taken bold and intelligent initiatives in reaching out to the North; and they have been reciprocated. Moon’s initiative could, in time, lead to a normalization between North Korea and South Korea, and that normalization will be critical in building the trust necessary to make any agreement actually work. South Korea should not play a subsidiary role as the negotiations proceed. They are critical to success, and, after all, it is their country that we are negotiating about.
And there is another important difference today over the failed negotiations of the past. If Trump is able to get an agreement, he will be able to get support for it in the U.S. Congress. Clinton was not able to get the Republicans in Congress to support the Agreed Framework negotiated in 1994, so he was never able to fully implement it. But Trump, as a Republican, would benefit from what is sometimes called the “Nixon effect”—when Nixon negotiated the Shanghai Agreement that normalized relations with the PRC, he was able to get the support of congressional leaders who would not have supported a similar agreement made by a Democrat.
Although the negotiations will be difficult and complex, they could be successful if the three parties enter them with good faith and make good use of the experiences—both good and bad—of previous negotiations. And if the negotiators succeed, they will have solved a very dangerous problem that has eluded other negotiators for more than two decades. Then it will be time to celebrate; then it will be time to allocate credit. If that happens, there would be plenty of credit to go around. Certainly Moon would deserve great credit for his unprecedented initiative in engaging the North. Certainly Kim would deserve great credit for seeing that he could achieve his country’s security without nuclear weapons. And certainly Trump would deserve great credit for seeing the possibility of a peaceful solution where many of his advisers saw military action as the only option.
In the meantime, we have much hard work ahead. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.
William J. Perry is a former US secretary of defence.
This article first appeared in Politico.