Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and author of a novel about how a nuclear war with North Korea might begin, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
A bipartisan consensus seems to be forming that President Trump was right to walk away from the deal offered by Kim Jong Un at the two leaders’ summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The consensus is a strange one, given that the deal itself was exactly the same as what had been reported to be North Korea’s position heading into the negotiation, a position that many commentators had praised. North Korea would offer to shut down facilities at its Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center that were involved in making plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. In exchange, North Korea asked the United States to lift sanctions that had been imposed on its civilian economy since 2016.
Of course, North Korea would retain its nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and many other facilities after such an agreement. And the United States and other countries would also retain many sanctions on North Korea. The agreement on offer was hardly the disarmament that the president had hoped for, but it would have been another step away from the taunts and threats of 2017 and toward some other future. That was the deal the U.S. should have taken.
For the North Koreans, the logic of the offer was obvious. The United Nations had tightened existing sanctions in 2016 in response to a series of tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. North Korea has now stopped such tests, closed its nuclear test site, partially dismantled a rocket-engine test stand and offered to dismantle some of the facilities at Yongbyon. Surely an adjustment in sanctions was warranted.
Trump and his team disagreed. One State Department official explained that North Korea must not merely end testing but also give up all the weapons developed on the basis of those tests.
“Testing was part of a process of developing nuclear weapons, and the weapons themselves need to be on the table,” the official explained. “It’s not the testing of the weapons; it’s the actual presence of the nuclear weapons — and, by the way, likewise in the case of missile testing, the ICBMs as well that are central to this discussion.”
The U.S. position — that North Korea must unilaterally abandon its nuclear capabilities in exchange for promises of some different future — is a kind of American fantasy about power that is more suited to an action movie than the reality of international negotiations.
Let’s be clear: During 2017, North Korea tested a series of new missiles, including two different intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach the United States. One of those missiles, the Hwasong-15, can deliver a nuclear-weapon-size payload all the way to Mar-a-Lago.
North Korea also tested a thermonuclear weapon that exploded with a force 10 times stronger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By any measure, North Korea’s leverage over the course of 2017 increased dramatically as it acquired the ability to grievously harm the United States. We can be angry about this, but our rage is impotent. Attempting to remove Kim from power as we did with Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi would be sheer madness.
And so, why would the United States expect North Korea to willingly trade away that advantage in its entirety? Why would North Korea, having completed the development of a nuclear deterrent that puts it in a class with countries like China, India, Pakistan and Israel, simply apologize and turn over these capabilities in exchange for a couple of McDonald’s and a Trump Tower Pyongyang?
It is obvious, or it should be, that North Korea has a strong hand to play. Why is that so hard to see from inside the Beltway?
I suspect that part of the problem has to do with a kind of embarrassment. Time and again, the United States has walked away from diplomatic agreements with North Korea. In fairness, the North Koreans have been no angels. But the U.S. has seldom stuck around long enough to work through the difficulties and differences.
Each time, North Korea has increased its nuclear capability. In 2002, the United States walked away from the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea’s plutonium production, only to see North Korea conduct its first nuclear test in 2006. The United States tried again but abandoned Six-Party Talks in 2008 over concerns about verification, only to watch North Korea conduct more nuclear tests. And in 2012, the U.S. walked away from another tentative deal over a North Korean rocket launch, only to see Pyongyang spend the past few years testing ever more weapons, including its ICBM and thermonuclear weapon to arm it.
Each time the United States walked, a lot of people in Washington promised that patience and pressure would produce a better deal than the one squandered. And each time they were wrong. Like a gambler racking up debt, the U.S. foreign policy community has consistently taken its chances at the roulette table rather than cutting its losses and admitting the obvious: North Korea has the bomb.
But that’s apparently the one thing that remains taboo in Washington. Even now, the United States cannot recognize what seems pretty obvious.
We can’t admit failure because it requires not merely changing our policy but admitting that we’ve been wrong. It’s far easier to pretend that a better deal is just around the corner. It isn’t.