With the conclusion of President Vladimir Putin and Chairman Kim Jong Un’s April 2019 summit in Vladivostok, calls for continuation of dialogue to negotiate peace for the Korean Peninsula have intensified. One of the main issues is that a workable peace plan is needed which is acceptable to not only North Korea, but also the regional powers that surround it. A major sticking point has been the United States’ concerns over North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Kim Jong Un also expressed to Vladimir Putin his desire to receive security guarantees in return for surrendering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear arsenal.
How can these concerns be satisfactorily assuaged? A blueprint that seeks a series of smaller agreements which build up to the ultimate goal of a denuclearized and peaceful North Korea is certain to succeed where the “all or nothing” approach has previously failed.
Roadmap To Denuclearization
President Donald Trump loves making large deals. Big agreements have been a hallmark of Trump’s style ever since he entered the real estate industry. Unfortunately these kinds of large deals, like his casino enterprises, have landed him in hot water. The vast complexity of a political agreement in an already tricky situation will require Trump to abandon his preferred approach for a solution that is tailored to solve problems with North Korea. The President might consider the merits of a phased approach to denuclearization.
Phase One – Production
The first phase would ensure that tensions with North Korea do not become any worse than they currently are by dismantling nuclear and ICBM production facilities. Such a step ought to prevent existing stockpiles from being increased beyond their current levels while building goodwill between all parties involved. Following this, North Korea should allow international monitors to inspect and confirm dismantlement to prove good faith.
In return for these actions, the US and North Korea need to officially end the Korean War with a peace treaty. This would be followed by an award of limited sanctions relief with “slap back” clauses, ensuring their return in the event that the DPRK did not live up their promises under existing agreements. At this stage, North and South Korea might also return to the inter-Korean economic projects they have worked in on the past or even embark on new ventures. Ending the Korean War in particular is a priority since the continuation of a state of war between the various nations involved in the conflict creates diplomatic issues and gives countries moral and legal justification for various behaviors in Asia and around the world which might not otherwise be tolerated.
Phase Two – Infrastructure
After production facilities are neutralized, all remaining nuclear infrastructure in the DPRK would need to be deconstructed entirely and inspected by international observers. This is important since it will remove any lingering doubts about North Korea’s intentions to end their pursuit of bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s cooperation during the second phase of denuclearization can be answered with a removal from the United States’ list of nations hit with a travel ban paired with additional increments of sanctions relief. More significantly, China, Russia and the United States could then sign agreements guaranteeing abstention from attacks against North Korea and reaffirmation of Kim Jong Un as the leader of the DPRK. This will give Kim some assurance that relinquishing his nuclear weapons will not leave his country exposed to an invasion by foreign interests.
Phase Three – Warheads
The final phase of denuclearization consists of dismantling and removing the DPRK’s stockpile of nuclear warheads. Once this process was finished and inspections carried out sanctions should be removed entirely.
More broadly, Russia and China could then offer North Korea trade deals which would be very lucrative for all parties involved. China has long wished to include North Korea in their Belt and Road initiative due to the fact that the DPRK provides land access to South Korea that would allow for overland freighting. Russia has also sought to build a Trans-Korean pipeline through both countries. Both initiatives represent fantastic ways to build connections and trust in the region while making the venture worthwhile for everyone.
If North Korea desires further guarantees from Russia and China that they will protect it from the United States, Japan or other aggressors, both countries might make offers to place military installations inside North Korea. Naval bases on the east and west coasts of the DPRK would allow both countries to protect their economic initiatives and provide security in a manner that did not excessively complicate matters with the United States. With the conventional forces of all three great powers on the Peninsula to keep the peace while economic cooperation is brought into focus the North should be able to finally relax and rejoin the international community.
Conclusion: Build A Foundation First
As a construction veteran, President Trump should know that a skyscraper cannot be built without laying a proper foundation. One large agreement is not a realistic solution to problems with the DPRK since it does not allow for a foundation embodied by smaller deals to be built. It is likely that parties who want to scuttle peace talks are promoting a “big deal” for this very reason. A phased-out series of agreements to achieve the ultimate goal is a much more realistic and workable way to achieve peace for the Korean Peninsula.
Trump has already opened the door to smaller deals with the North, but needs to make them his primary focus. This will allow both sides to proceed towards their ultimate goal while building trust and also helping North Korea end its decades-old isolationism which at this stage only hurts the country. Singapore allowed both sides to understand each other’s position. The Vladivostok summit showed that the United States is not alone in wanting to help North Korea move from a pariah to a regional powerhouse that gets along well with its neighbors. Take small steps until the journey is complete.