Guest Editorial: Moving beyond Trump’s North Korea fantasies

Farmington Daily Times
Guest Editorial

Well, that was easy.

After a single meeting in Singapore, President 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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

But Mr. 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?

In the Iran deal, Tehran agreed to strict controls on its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits — sanctions relief. 

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 United States protecting one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Instead, the administration could promise not to try to overthrow Mr. Kim. 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.

Mr. 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. 

The administration insists it won’t lift longstanding sanctions on North Korea until denuclearization is done, but no country will give up such leverage without compensation along the way. If Mr. 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. 

Major national security commitments are stronger and more credible when backed by a bipartisan majority in Congress. If Mr. 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.
The New York Times, June 19