Editorials of The Times: How to Break the Impasse on North Korea

Two months after President Donald Trump’s dramatic summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his predictions of a quick end to North Korea’s nuclear threat have been exposed as the boasts of a man with little grasp of the complexity and difficulty of an issue that has long defied resolution.

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The Editorial Board
, New York Times

Two months after President Donald Trump’s dramatic summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his predictions of a quick end to North Korea’s nuclear threat have been exposed as the boasts of a man with little grasp of the complexity and difficulty of an issue that has long defied resolution.

It is hopeful that both sides have stayed in contact and exercised restraint; that’s a welcome change from the bellicose rhetoric of last year, from both Trump and Kim. But the two sides remain stalemated over the American goal of dismantling the North’s 20 to 60 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Meanwhile, the North has continued to produce the fuel and delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

The summit itself helped set up this impasse. Its concluding communiqué committed the two leaders to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” without even defining “denuclearization,” let alone explicitly agreeing on the sequence of actions to be taken.

After decades of dealing with the North Koreans, the Americans should have known better. They need only have studied the lesson of diplomatic imprecision from 2012 when, after agreeing to a missile test moratorium, North Korea launched a satellite, claiming it was not a missile but a rocket. There was a diplomatic initiative underway then, too, and it fell apart.

Trump has demanded that North Korea give up its nuclear program entirely, though no country with such an advanced nuclear weapons arsenal has ever done so. There are reasons to doubt Kim will make a different choice, even though he appears to recognize the need to focus on building the North’s devastated economy.

The administration has continued to tighten sanctions on North Korea, insisting that it will give no major concessions until the North takes unilateral concrete steps toward denuclearization. The North Koreans have balked, saying the Americans must first prove their willingness to improve relations by replacing the uneasy armistice that ended the Korean War with a peace declaration or an even more formal peace treaty.

Trump’s engagement with North Korea has yielded some benefits. Since achieving technical confidence in his weapons program nine months ago, Kim has halted all nuclear and ballistic missile testing, blown up the entrances to some test tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and begun to dissemble the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. The North Koreans also have handed over to the Pentagon what they said were the remains of 55 U.S. service members from the Korean War.

While such actions are a good beginning, they shouldn’t be exaggerated. Most are reversible and pale in comparison to the fact that the North continues to produce plutonium and enriched uranium, the fissile material needed for nuclear weapons, as well as to build ballistic missiles.

The Americans have given up even less: Trump met with Kim in Singapore, agreed to the communiqué (however flawed) and suspended military exercises with South Korea.

So where does that leave things?

The administration’s demand that North Korea take major steps toward denuclearization before the United States does anything to reciprocate is a recipe for failure. What’s needed is a step-by-step process in which both sides take mutually reinforcing actions that begin to build confidence and a more stable security environment.

That may seem like a lot to ask, given the extreme distrust on both sides. But in recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has appeared more open to the step-by-step approach. For this diplomatic opening to have any future, though, the two sides must soon begin serious sustained working-level negotiations.

Administration officials and some experts are worried that a peace declaration would open the door to withdrawing the 28,500 U.S. troops from South Korea, weakening the United States’ defense relationship with South Korea and its ability to take military action if needed.

But an interim declaration of peace is not the same as a peace treaty, which would presumably go into effect only when North Korea had denuclearized. The United States would always have the right to respond militarily if warranted.

The declaration could recognize the reality that the war ended decades ago, and it would serve as a mechanism for building a more peaceful relationship. In return, North Korea should provide a full inventory of its nuclear weapons, its missiles and its nuclear sites and halt the production of fissile material and missiles. Allowing international inspectors to verify what’s done is also essential.

The administration doesn’t have endless time to think this over. While the United States is narrowly focused on denuclearization and sanctions, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea seems set on an ambitious agenda, including pressing hard for the peace declaration and connecting the two Koreas and the wider region with a railway network.

Early next month in Pyongyang, Moon is to have a third meeting with Kim, amid concerns South Korea may be drifting from the United States and pursuing a more independent policy toward the North. (China, North Korea’s only ally, has also improved ties with Kim, which had been strained, as has Russia.) The two Korean governments would like to agree to a peace declaration by the start of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 18, or at least by the end of the year. U.N. officials might invite Kim to attend the assembly and deliver a speech.

Trump and Kim have called for a radically different, peaceful relationship between their countries. That ambition carries big risks and potentially big gains for both leaders. To achieve their objectives, they will have to show more political will, courage and creativity than they have so far.

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