The conclusion of the US-North Korea summit in Singapore offers a moment of cautious hope. The joint statement by President Trump and Kim Jong Un provides a basis for further negotiations on denuclearization and a lasting state of peace on the Korean peninsula. But what is still not clear, and what will determine the real success of this summit, is whether the two side can agree on the process and sequence steps in this years-long process. The photo opportunity was positive, but now the real work begins.
This is how it should proceed.
The ultimate goal of the United States should be to halt, then reverse and ultimately eliminate North Korea’s nuclear strike potential — in that order — and to succeed, this must be done in coordination with our closest regional allies: South Korea and Japan.
We should have no illusions that the denuclearization effort would be simple. There is no precedent for a country with a nuclear arsenal and infrastructure as substantial as North Korea’s to give up its nuclear weapons program. The North Korean nuclear and missile programs involve dozens of sites, hundreds of buildings, and thousands of people. Rapid progress should be the goal, but a comprehensive denuclearization process is complex and will take years to accomplish.
The process depends on reaching a common understanding with Kim Jong-un about what denuclearization entails. A good basis would be the 1992 Joint Declaration on Denuclearization by North and South Korea, which spells out which activities should be eliminated.
Next, the United States will need to ensure North Korea’s declared nuclear and missile testing halt and secure a freeze on fissile material production at all suspected sites, which will help ensure that North Korea cannot expand its arsenal. Both sides will need to agree on a plan to monitor and verify denuclearization by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. And, in addition, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will need to provide a full and complete declaration about its nuclear weapons and missile programs to guide that process
Beyond these near-term steps, and following more intensive expert-level talks, the two sides could agree to a process and a timeline for dismantling North Korea’s stockpile of 10-50 nuclear weapons and securing separated fissile material stocks. This would be supervised by technical team of specialists from nuclear weapon states, in cooperation with technical experts from North Korea.
Facilities that are part of North Korea’s nuclear complex and its longer-range missile production and deployment infrastructure would also need to be verifiably dismantled or converted under international supervision. This would be a major undertaking that could build upon the experience and lessons learned from U.S. and Russian cooperative threat reduction programs that helped eliminate excess Cold War-era stockpiles and sites.
To achieve real and lasting progress on denuclearization, the U.S. side must be willing simultaneously to take a series of phased, concrete steps to demonstrate it does not have “hostile intent” toward the regime in Pyongyang and that North Korea’s security does not depend on possessing nuclear weapons.
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President Trump said today that United States would “stop playing the war games” with South Korea but he was not precise in exactly what measures he would suspend. To protect the security of one of our closest allies while demonstrating real concessions towards North Korea, the United States should consider adopting the following measures:
►Agreeing to security guarantees, including a commitment not to threaten or use force against one another;
►Removing U.S. nuclear-capable strategic bombers from U.S. military exercises with allies in the region;
►Beginning formal negotiations on a peace treaty to replace the Korean War Armistice, which would involve talks among the United States, North Korea, South Korea, and China; and
►Pursuing normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations, beginning with the opening of a diplomatic interest section in Pyongyang and Washington;
The Trump administration will also need to keep members of Congress informed on its evolving strategy with regular reports on the negotiations. It will need Congressional advice and support to sustain the process, which will last beyond the life span of the Trump administration. Members of Congress can and should seek clarification from the Trump administration regarding its strategy, but the executive branch will need political space as it negotiates the specifics with Pyongyang.
Perhaps the most important advice and support we can give the president is the old British maxim: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” If early results are not fully satisfactory, Trump must resist the urge to abandon diplomacy and to return to irresponsible threats. This would only reinforce North Korea’s incentive to further improve its nuclear and missile activities and increase the likelihood of a military confrontation.
There are limits to the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of sanctions that the U.S. has successfully led. And a military conflict would be a disaster for every country in the region, and for the United States. The pursuit of disarmament diplomacy with North Korea is hard work and it never comes easily, but it is better than the alternatives.
Thomas Countryman is former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011-2017; Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association.