(Reuters) – The head-spinning ups and downs of the “on-off-and-now-maybe” summit between Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is diverting attention from the real choice facing the U.S. president: if he remains inflexibly committed to eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile program by the end of his first term, he will fail.
Contrary to the sky-high expectations being set, rollback of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will not happen anytime soon because — after investing so much blood, sweat and treasure to develop operational nuclear weapons over the past 25 years — the North will not give them up quickly or easily.
President Trump’s promises of huge benefits if Kim turns over his nuclear weapons first are exactly the kind of rhetoric the North mocks. I was a member of U.S. government delegations involved in talks with Pyongyang during the Clinton administration and I took part in meetings with North Korean officials as a private citizen from 2005 to 2010. I often heard the North, with unintended humor, deride U.S. demands as asking the North to … simply trust Washington.
Still, a Singapore summit can succeed — if Trump sees these talks as the start of a process, not the end. Perhaps recognition of this reality is why negotiations now appear to be heading for a “phased approach” to denuclearization. Trump and Kim may be considering a “much more for much more” deal. This means in exchange for a big down payment from the United States in the form of sanctions relief, political legitimacy and security, the more the North will give — and quicker. This makes me hopeful.
However, with all things Kim and Trump, nothing is certain — especially as there is likely an intense struggle within the White House for the president’s heart and mind. Newly appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton fervently believes negotiations with North Korea are useless; in contrast, recently-installed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is working hard by traveling to Pyongyang and meeting with North Korean officials in New York to make something happen.
If Bolton’s view prevails, then there is only one way for Washington to ensure early and complete denuclearization — force Pyongyang into compliance. This requires unrelenting diplomatic, financial and military pressure and threats that either grinds the North Korean leadership into submission, or topples Kim Jong Un and his cabal from power with the hope that a “friendly” leadership emerges.
Both are bad bets.
Expecting the North to crumble and submit to U.S. demands is, for anyone who knows North Korea and its history, pure folly. For decades the North has demonstrated the ability to endure incredible hardship (over a million people died of starvation in the 1990s). It has confounded China, Russia, Japan and the United States because the regime’s very legitimacy ultimately rests on its ability to skillfully defy the demands of larger powers, often playing one off the other. For Kim, capitulation would be tantamount to regime suicide.
Regime change — which could happen slowly via sanctions and political isolation or quickly through covert or overt military action — is also problematic. During George W. Bush’s first term, Washington pursued the slow approach with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, and the fast approach with Saddam Hussein. History proved that neither was particularly successful.
Most importantly, those advocating unrelenting pressure are making a big wager that high-stakes tension will not cause us to stumble into war by miscalculation. A deadly exchange of fire along Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, a collision of naval vessels in contested fishing grounds or a missile test gone wrong — all of which have happened — could, given the aggressive personalities of Kim and Trump, rapidly escalate into further devastating conflict.
If early and complete denuclearization is not in the cards and if forcing North Korean compliance increases the risk of catastrophic war, Mr. Trump is left with one remaining path to complete denuclearization — the North Korean leadership must voluntarily, and of its own free will, give up its nuclear weapons.
True denuclearization means creating a very different political and security environment so that the regime no longer views its long-standing, adversarial policies or weapons as necessary. No piece of paper, no promise, no assurance from the United States will suffice. This is a daunting task — and will take years. Think about how the Vietnam-U.S. relationship has changed since the end of that war.
The Bolton camp will argue that giving the North more time will create a more powerful, provocative North Korea; this view rests on an unproven assumption — that Kim Jong Un seeks to dominate the peninsula, not just preserve his regime. But what happens to North Korea a decade or so into the future is uncertain at best. Others raise the danger of a North Korea with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, but discount that deterrence is working on the Korean peninsula — Kim knows North Korea would cease to exist if it struck the United States, South Korea or Japan first.
These are tough choices. If and when Trump and Kim do meet (and I think they will), there will be an impasse. Trump wants denuclearization sooner; Kim, later. How long will an impatient American leader wait and how much will he give in return? Let’s hope the president listens more to Pompeo, not Bolton; otherwise, we will be right back to where we were in 2017 — more missile and nuclear tests, increased bombast, and an even greater chance of war.
Philip W. Yun is executive director of Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco security and peace foundation. He previously served as a senior adviser to two U.S. coordinators for North Korea at the Department of State.