President Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong Un shake hands in summit room, June 12, 2018. (Office of the President of the United States/Public Domain)
President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un can truly make history during their talks in Vietnam come late February. But transforming an adversarial relationship built on tough talk, nuclear threats, and the danger of a Second Korean War that could kill millions won’t be easy. It can only be done with ingenuity, outside-the-box thinking, and that X factor that only Trump brings to the table.
And that’s just for starters, as history tells us no negotiation with North Korea is easy. Success can only be assured if both sides make concessions that are realistic, verifiable, and not perceived as a loss to the one granting them.
Thankfully, we have a president who doesn’t care about past tensions or how other administrations have handled North Korea policy—and that is a big advantage. Trump’s mix of foreign policy realism, naivete, and obsession with dominating the news cycle create what can only be described as the weirdest but best chance for real peace on the Korean Peninsula in a generation.
Honestly, the best course of action would be Trump taking the old foreign policy playbook and lighting it on fire. His first summit with Kim essentially did just that, baffling the foreign policy elites here in Washington in what at the time I thought was a Hail Mary that could end in spectacular failure. I honestly wanted him to walk out if he could not get major concessions upfront.
I must admit that I was wrong. Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore, though it didn’t instantly denuclearize the north, did create the conditions to build trust and reduce tensions that could have spiraled into an armed conflict the likes of which hadn’t been seen since World War II. No matter what you think of Trump, that is clear progress. And while things have not gone as smoothly as I would have hoped since Singapore, this second summit presents a golden opportunity to get diplomacy back on track, creating a solid foundation for the future.
So what should those all-important deliverables be this time around? What should history say about this event when we look back decades from now? The most likely outcome of a second summit would be North Korea dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear facility—something Kim has already put on the table—in exchange for some form of sanctions relief. While Washington might balk at weakening its maximum pressure campaign before full denuclearization occurs, an action-for-action approach seems like the most realistic path forward. Each side in such a scenario gets a clear win, and both can claim back home that they were able to get a core concession from the other. It also allows America and North Korea to test each other’s willingness to follow through with important promises made, which could build up to even harder compromises down the road.
I, however, want to see something special happen. I want history to look back at this summit with pride, the moment that one of the last places the Cold War is still waged finally comes to an end. If Trump and Kim agree to end the Korean War once and for all, it will truly make the historical record. While a peace treaty is most likely impossible for America to commit to, as it would need Senate approval, a peace declaration acknowledging that there is no longer a state of war on the Korean Peninsula would be a game changer. Such a declaration would show a clear intent to transform the relationship and create a solid foundation for the much harder work towards denuclearization that is yet to come.
There will, of course, be those who are rooting for President Trump to fail. Never Trumpers, most on the left, and countless others won’t want to give the president credit if things go well, fearing that any wind in his political sails could help reelect him in 2020. I would ask them to consider the alternative, and just how close we came to war in 2017 and early 2018. What happens if these talks fall apart and both sides go back to threats of nuclear annihilation, missile tests, and military exercises? I don’t see any room for failure. Simply stated, we have no more room left to run. A transformed relationship with North Korea and real peace on the Korean Peninsula is the only option.
We must, as everyone loves to say, put all options on the table—towards a compromise all sides can live with.
Harry J. Kazianis is director of Korea Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He also serves as executive editor for their publishing arm, The National Interest. The views express in this op-ed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.