US-North Korea: Limits to the Peace Negotiations
Both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un want to bring something that looks good back to their respective home audience. But the likely outcome will lack real substance.
- Both sides need to declare these summits a success and need to be able to demonstrate that to their domestic audiences.
- The likely outcome of the negotiations is the declaration or signing of a Peace Treaty which will look good on both sides.
- The two summits are a coup d’etat for Kim Jong Un. He has been accepted as a global leader who can meet a sitting US President at parity.
- If a Peace Treaty is signed, Trump can claim he made peace possible and should be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
As the peace negotiations begin, the scope for the outcome has already been delimited by hard realities on the ground. Denuclearization is out of scope from North Korea’s point of view.
Committing to full denuclearization – even a conditional one with attractive terms – would be equivalent to putting an expiry date on the North Korean regime. This touches on several non-negotiables domestically:
1. North Korea is a small country with outsized neighbours and enemies. The only way for it to level the playing field is to be a nuclear power. Period.
2. The country is too poor to support a large well supplied and technologically advanced army. It can never match South Korean, Japanese and American capabilities even if it spends itself into the ground. The cheapest and guaranteed way for security is to be a nuclear power.
Maintaining its nuclear stockpile after it has been developed would be far cheaper than upgrading the army. It will also be a guaranteed deterrent.
3. Kim Jong Un and the army have staked their reputations domestically on the development of these weapons. Any stepping back would be an unacceptable sign of weakness and a form of “hara-kiri.”
If there is any one issue which has universal agreement and popularity within the country it is the nuclear weapons program. It is the pride of the country.
4. It is the cheapest way to develop the economy. Internally it is viewed as a very wise way to ensure peace and thereby enable it to focus on economic development with a single mind. Also it could even open the possibility of reducing army expenditure in the future with a smaller army.
The nuclear program within North Korea is central to state survival and very unlike the auxiliary programs Iran, South Africa or Libya.
From the U.S. side, without full and complete denuclearization, a cessation of the economic embargo or pull out of U.S. troops would be seen as weakness on the part of Trump. Thus this would be non-negotiable. If these are non-negotiable than what is negotiable? This is the way for different parties:
What it wants: Peace treaty, cessation of military exercises by U.S. forces in South Korea, withdrawal of U.S. troops, free trade, foreign investment and more foreign aid.
What it can offer: Return of all remains of U.S. soldiers, return of foreign hostages (especially Japanese), limitations on its nuclear program (dismantling of some facilities, cease testing, allow inspection, cease production of fissile materials).
What it cannot offer: Complete denuclearization and dismantling of its existing weapons.
What it wants: Complete denuclearization, all remains of U.S. soldiers to be returned, human rights.
What it can give: Peace treaty, cessation of military exercises by U.S. forces in South Korea, withdrawal of U.S. troops, free trade, foreign investment and more foreign aid.
Japan and South Korea
What they want: De-nuclearization, peace treaty, hostages to be returned.
What they can offer: Free trade, investment.
Both sides need to declare these summits a success and need to be able to demonstrate that to their domestic audiences.
The likely outcome is the declaration of or signing of a Peace Treaty which will look good on both sides. It is not much of a giveaway anyway since there has been peace for the last 66 years. Both can definitely claim success. Especially for Kim this would be a coup d’etat.
North Korea will offer the United Sates some face saving compromises on its nuclear program to dress up the zero progress in this area. They could be dismantling of some facilities, cease testing, allow inspection, cease production of fissile materials. This will be Trumpeted as huge strides in denuclearization.
The United States on its part would give a few more face saving items to North Korea like foreign aid. Another possibility is to cease U.S. war exercises in Korea. But this is unlikely as after a Peace Treaty is signed war exercises become less threatening.
Also by throwing this into the deal the United States is unlikely to get any further gains from the North Korean side.
Coup d’etat for Kim Jong Un
Ultimately, the two summits are a coup d’etat for Kim Jong Un. He has been accepted as a global leader who can meet a sitting U.S. President at parity.
This is undoubtedly so for his home audience in Korea. With a Peace Treaty he will be the hero of the nation. He confidently can tell his people that with peace now the country can focus on economic development and the era that will end hardships has begun.
His leadership position would be unassailable. He would have finally earned his own stripes for the title bestowed on him “The Great Successor.”
Trump can claim he made peace possible and he should be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace. He can also claim that no new missiles have been fired by North Korea since the summits and some inspections and dismantling of nuclear facilities has started.
North Korea would from now on be accepted as a de-facto nuclear power. Overtime it will be courted to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
North Korea would stop rattling its sabres to threaten another missile launch. Instead, it will milk the global system to try to gain as much as it can by being a responsible nuclear power and a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Every now and then it will threaten to sell it nuclear secrets to terrorists and other global outcastes to get what it wants.