Much discussion has occurred about a possible freeze of North Korea’s strategic weapons programs. Is it part of the Trump administration’s strategy in the hopefully soon-to-be-resumed talks with Pyongyang, or not? Is there a debate about it within the administration, or not? Is it a good idea, or not? Unnamed sources in the administration say “yes” to some or all of these questions; national security adviser John Bolton emphatically says “no” to all of them.
But, as it turns out, a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs could be a good thing — for two reasons. First, it would build trust that could lead to subsequent deals resulting in cuts and permanent limits to North Korea’s weapons programs. It is difficult to overstate the trust gap that currently exists between the two countries, making a single, one-step agreement that resolves the nuclear issue an impossibility.
Second, with each day that passes without a deal or a freeze, Pyongyang adds to its existing stockpile of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, giving it added leverage in any talks that do happen (that is, more to eventually bargain away and, therefore, to receive in return), not to mention the added security threat to the United States that more weapons would create. Indeed, this is the biggest downside of allowing North Korea to delay the march toward talks.
The Obama administration and its P5+1 negotiating partners — the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany — successfully achieved a freeze with the Iranians during the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. The Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program from day one of those negotiations. When the talks began, the Iranians were two months away from having enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon, if they had chosen to proceed. Had their program not been frozen, that time frame would have fallen to only a few weeks by the time the negotiations concluded. A freeze shifted the need for speed from the P5+1 to the Iranians (because of the biting sanctions if they failed to agree to a freeze), and it could similarly do so for North Korea.
Any discussion of a freeze with North Korea, however, needs to be informed by two caveats. Most important, a freeze cannot be the end state of the negotiations, which is what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would try to work for and which, if he were to achieve it, would be a significant victory for his regime. The way to make sure it does not become the end state is to ensure that whatever we give to obtain a freeze still leaves a significant amount of economic sanctions in place, to keep the pressure on Pyongyang.
What might we give in return for a freeze? Certainly, some limited sanctions relief, something to show North Korea the potential benefits of a long-term deal with the United States. Perhaps a restart of South Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea — the use of North Korean labor to make South Korean products for export. Perhaps an opening of diplomatic interests sections in Pyongyang and Washington. Whatever we agree to, however, should be reversible in the event the Kim regime doesn’t adhere to the freeze.
It is also important to note that a freeze would require North Korea to take very significant steps that it has not been willing to take so far. Pyongyang would have to declare the scope and location — to the United States and the world — of all its fissile material and long-range missile production facilities, even those that media reports say are still secret. And the regime would have to allow international inspectors into those facilities to ensure they remain idle during the course of the negotiations. Absent these conditions, a freeze would be meaningless.
Those in the administration who are advocating consideration of a freeze of North Korea’s program as an interim step are, in my view, thinking in the best interests of U.S. security. Such a step could lead much more quickly to an eventual final deal to eliminate or severely limit North Korea’s nuclear program. It would be foolish to reject the idea of a freeze out of hand. It is actually the next logical step in President’s Donald Trump’s diplomacy with Pyongyang.
Morell was deputy director of CIA from 2010 to 2013 and twice its acting director during that period.