Aside from President Trump, virtually no one thinks a full agreement for North Korea’s complete nuclearization is going to be forged June 12. Instead of utter failure (or Trump’s dangerous concessions to “get a deal”) the Brookings Institution’s Michael E. O’Hanlon has a clever four-step process the administration should consider. The first two would look like this:
Freeze. This is the stage we are now in, of course, so no radical steps are needed to achieve it in the short term, but the positive atmospherics around the summit are smart and should continue. . . .
Cap. A verifiable cessation to the production of fissile material needed in a nuclear bomb would be a huge step. To achieve it, North Korea would have to shut down existing nuclear activities, provide a database of existing production sites to international inspectors, and allow those inspectors to visit the sites as well as “suspect sites” in other parts of the country. It could shroud and shield areas of each major military facility so that inspectors would not be able to find actual warhead stocks, but otherwise it would be giving up information on the regime’s most prized possessions to the international community. At the same time, however, it would not be permanently disabling or dismantling these sites, so the incentives offered to it should be temporarily and reversible as well — the suspension of certain sanctions rather than their elimination, and the provision of just humanitarian aid rather than wide-ranging economic aid.
The difficulty, if not the impossibility, of reaching a deal is clear. Few North Korea watchers think a regime as paranoid, freakishly controlling and repressive as Pyongyang is going to “shut down existing nuclear activities, provide a database of existing production sites to international inspectors, and allow those inspectors to visit the sites.” If not, however, we haven’t given much up and can further tighten sanctions.
The next two steps are where the rubber hits the road:
Dismantle. At this stage, while North Korea would be keeping its warheads (presumably), it would be giving up huge investments worth many hundreds of millions of dollars that would take years to rebuild. As such, more significant quid pro quos would be appropriate. . . . The majority of U.S. sanctions should stay in place until nuclear disarmament really begins to happen — until the final phase of the process, discussed below. . . .
Disarm. At this stage, U.S. sanctions could be lifted as warheads were shipped out of North Korea. . . . But such lifting of sanctions would still be important because it would make possible major loans and grants from the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development, among other bodies. The spigot for such aid should not be fully opened all at once, even after nuclear disarmament. North Korea should be expected to make economic reforms, reduction in its enormous conventional military capabilities, and elimination of other weapons of mass destruction to qualify for the international community’s full largesse. A human rights dialogue should also be initiated by this stage. But significant aid would begin once the warheads and any additional stocks of highly enriched uranium or plutonium were turned over to international control. . . . By contrast, full-fledged U.S. diplomatic relations with North Korea should await, at a minimum, the end of the dismantlement phase noted above, and perhaps the disarming phase too.
We find this eminently reasonable, but unlikely to ever be agreed upon by Pyongyang. That’s all right! We should make the offer and at the very least on June 12 determine if North Korea under any circumstances would agree to dismantle, let alone disarm. The problem with sending heads of state/government to meet is that, if they fail, there is hardly any reason to have further talks. Maybe on June 12 we should seek to reach agreement on the concept of phased disarmament in exchange for sanctions. If North Korea won’t agree even to that or insists on removing the nuclear umbrella and U.S. troops securing South Korea, then we’ll at least have clarity that this entire exercise was nothing more than wishful thinking.