Editorials of The Times

Posted June 19, 2018 11:16 p.m. EDT

Beyond Trump’s Korea Fantasies

Well, that was easy.

After a single meeting in Singapore, President Donald Trump has, in his own fantastical telling, rendered North Korea “no longer a nuclear threat.” Never mind that North Korea still has as many as 60 nuclear weapons, scores of ballistic missiles and an untold number of facilities that are producing plutonium and enriched uranium.

Unfortunately for the president, containing a nuclear power requires more than just one meeting. Negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear threat will take deliberation, political courage — and time.

The broad outlines of an agreement would be similar to proposals and pacts the United States has developed over the decades to restrain countries with nuclear ambitions: In return for curbing their nuclear programs and allowing international verification, such countries are offered economic, political and security benefits.

That was the core of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, which fell apart by 2003; a 2006 proposal to Iran by France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and the United States that went nowhere; and the far more rigorous 2015 Iran deal that involved the same five powers and that Trump reneged on.

With North Korea, there are two unique complications: It already has an arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, including an ICBM that can reach the United States, and the locations of many its nuclear sites are unknown, making verification hard if not impossible.

And since Trump has denounced the Iran deal, with its uniquely intrusive inspections and strict requirements for significantly reducing nuclear fuel and other nuclear-related components, as the “worst ever,” he has set quite a high bar for an accord with North Korea. In fact, he says he is insisting on “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” presumably meaning eliminating all of North Korea’s atomic weapons and production facilities. That outcome would be an extraordinary achievement.

But Trump has been known to underdeliver on his grander promises, and no nation with a nuclear program this advanced has ever disarmed so completely. So what would a more plausible yet still positive deal look like?

SCOPE: In the Iran deal, Tehran agreed to strict controls on its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits — sanctions relief. Trump could seek a broader deal with North Korea by offering wider benefits, not just sanctions relief but also security guarantees and full diplomatic relations. This would allow the administration to pursue curbs on North Korea’s missiles, chemical and biological weapons and technology exports, too. The president has said of Kim Jong Un, “I will guarantee his safety.” That is a ridiculous commitment no president could keep, or want to, since it would have the U.S. protecting one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Instead, the administration could promise not to try to overthrow Kim and could reiterate the pledge the U.S. made in the 1994 Agreed Framework, to work toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. In exchange, North Korea would curb those other weapons and perhaps resolve the fate of South Korean and Japanese citizens North Korea has abducted. A peace treaty to resolve the Korean War 65 years after an armistice was signed could be considered, if it wouldn’t bog down the nuclear negotiations.

SHORT-TERM GOALS: Trump thinks he can snap his fingers and get North Korea to eliminate all its nuclear weapons and facilities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says to expect “major disarmament” by the end of the president’s first term. Some experts have estimated it could take up to 15 years to fully denuclearize. Many say it’s unrealistic to expect it all. No matter how likely or how drawn out such a grand goal would be, some steps can be taken quickly. As a start, the two sides should agree on a framework for sustained, high-level negotiations, including a definition of denuclearization using the 1992 South-North Joint Declaration as a model. In that agreement the two Koreas committed to limiting nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and not to test, manufacture, receive, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons or nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. North Korea should make its temporary freeze on nuclear and missile testing permanent and allow international inspectors to verify the destruction of the test sites the government claims to have blown up. It could even sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Fissile material production should also be frozen. Even if the process ended there, Trump would achieve something constructive.

LONGER TERM: If negotiations are successful, even more so than some think possible, North Korea would eventually begin destroying or removing to another country its fissile material and dismantling weapons and production facilities, providing a comprehensive list of its facilities. Given the nature and breadth of the program, verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency would most likely have to be still more intrusive than the 24/7 system in place in Iran.

SANCTIONS RELIEF AND OTHER BENEFITS: The administration insists it won’t lift long-standing sanctions on North Korea until denuclearization is done, but no country will give up such leverage without compensation along the way. If Trump wants a deal, he’s going to have to work out a plan where sanctions are lifted in stages, commensurate with steps taken by North Korea, and can be reversed if North Korea reneges on its commitments. The president also promised unspecified “security guarantees,” and then went overboard by announcing plans to halt joint military exercises with South Korea (without first consulting Seoul or the Pentagon) and signaling that at some point he may withdraw the 28,000 U.S. troops from South Korea. Such sensitive and far-reaching decisions should be part of a process, not a unilateral concession. Opening a U.S. interests section — a de facto embassy — in Pyongyang and eventually establishing full normal diplomatic relations should also be part of any agreement.

CONGRESS’ ROLE: Major national security commitments are stronger and more credible when backed by a bipartisan majority in Congress. If Trump gets an agreement with North Korea and wants to make sure it survives, he should work with Congress to pass it as a treaty.

Taking Voters for Granted

When asking New Yorkers for their vote, most candidates would begin by showing up.

Not U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley. No, Crowley, a 10-term Democratic congressman who reportedly has ambitions of serving as House speaker, chose to skip a debate Monday night with his primary challenger, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He sent a surrogate instead, former City Councilwoman Annabel Palma.

This is the second primary debate in which Crowley was a no-show. A spokeswoman for Crowley said he had scheduling conflicts that wouldn’t allow him to attend the two debates, inevitably leaving voters to wonder — what are we, chopped liver?

Indeed, the snubs should be galling not only to Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley’s constituents in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in Queens and the Bronx, but also to anyone who cares about the democratic process.

Crowley, 56, is a powerful congressman who leads the Queens County Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez, 28, has presented him his first major primary challenge in years. Despite long odds, Ocasio-Cortez, a former Bernie Sanders campaign organizer, has garnered significant support, waging a high-energy campaign and positioning herself as a grass-roots alternative to Crowley.

The candidates have met once, in a Spectrum News NY1 debate last week at which both candidates held their own.

Instead of attending Monday evening’s debate, which was hosted by The Parkchester Times, Crowley visited a civic association meeting in Queens. Ocasio-Cortez was left to debate Crowley’s chosen surrogate, Palma. Palma once represented the Bronx on the City Council and now serves in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration as a deputy commissioner at the Department of Social Services.

Crowley’s constituents might well now wonder whether he intends, if re-elected, to have Palma make his floor speeches and cast his votes as well.

Crowley aides said they had told the newspaper weeks ago that there was a scheduling conflict and had asked to change the event. The publisher of The Parkchester Times said he had no idea that Crowley wouldn’t attend.

Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter after the debate that in sending Palma, Crowley chose “a woman with slight resemblance to me” as his surrogate. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Palma are Latina. Crowley aides dispute that Crowley chose Palma because of her ethnicity. A campaign spokesman, Vijay Chaudhuri, said Palma was chosen because she is a “phenomenal local leader.”

Crowley is far from the first candidate to decline to debate a challenger he is heavily favored to beat. But as a longtime incumbent with a powerful role as a party leader, he should relish, not shirk, a chance to make his case to voters. Crowley has decades of experience that can serve his constituents well in Congress. But his seat is not his entitlement. He’d better hope that voters don’t react to his snubs by sending someone else to do the job.

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