The Rolling Stones’ classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” with its sobering refrain, “but if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need,” was a staple at then-candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies. Today, when it comes to dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge, President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who left Pyongyang empty-handed Saturday — and other administration officials would be wise to heed those words: They have almost no chance of getting what they want, North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, or “CVID.”
The administration might, however, get what it needs — peace and security on the Korean Peninsula — if Trump is willing to adjust to the reality that America will have to live with a nuclear North Korea; and to find the safest, most secure and least humiliating way to do so. He can accept this outcome while still protecting the security of the United States and its allies.
Trump’s haste to declare victory in his negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un risks locking the United States into a potentially self-defeating game: Having tweeted, after returning from his summit last month with Kim, that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” the president is boxed in on one side by high expectations and on the other by an unnamed official in the North Korean Foreign Ministry describing Pompeo’s negotiating position as “gangster-like” and “cancerous.” On this latest trip, the secretary of state didn’t meet face-to-face meeting with Kim, didn’t hand-deliver the Elton John CD that Trump said he planned to give Kim as a gift, and there are reports from unnamed individuals saying the North Koreans were merely toying with Pompeo.
In that kind of negotiating climate, it’s magical thinking to aim for getting Kim to surrender his nuclear weapons capability and destroying North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure. It certainly won’t happen in accordance with America’s timelines or preferences, and little progress will be made toward this goal as long as Trump thinks he can talk Kim into unilaterally giving him what he wants — CVID — up front without giving Kim what he wants: an end to what North Korea calls America’s “hostile policy”; security assurances; a halt to joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises; withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea; normalization of diplomatic relations; sanctions relief; and economic assistance. That’s not going to happen, either. Kim, too, should heed the Rolling Stones.
But diplomacy can work if the administration is ready to give up on its maximalist goals and engages in the give and take of compromise with North Korea — and if Trump and Pompeo accept that negotiations will be drawn out and difficult, not a quick, easy win. As CNN’s senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, tweeted Wednesday of denuclearization, cue Sir Elton singing, “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time.”
Step one is for the United States to accept the reality, however unpleasant, that North Korea is now a nuclear-armed state. Next is coming to terms with having to tolerate a North Korea with a nuclear arsenal if — if — the United States, South Korea and North Korea are successful in eventually establishing terms for reconciliation and a comprehensive security regime for the Korean Peninsula.
As much as separating Kim from his nukes might appear to be the only solution to the threat he poses, and would be received as a diplomatic coup for Trump, the central focus on these weapons does not address North Korea’s chemical, biological and conventional weapons, all of which pose an immediate threat to South Korea and Japan and the roughly 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. A preoccupation with denuclearization diminishes the real, and realistic, strategic end game: reducing the risk of war between North and South Korea, and the U.S. and North Korea, and creating a more stable Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia.
Given North Korea’s extant capabilities, denuclearization should be one means to an end, not an end itself. Indeed, the administration’s — official Washington’s, really — idée fixe with CVID has the effect of crowding out other avenues for reducing the risks of war and holds progress hostage to the most intractable and politically loaded issue. There will come a point in these negotiations, as in all negotiations, where both parties will face each other’s nonnegotiable bottom lines. For Kim that will almost certainly be maintaining some sort of nuclear insurance policy. But apart from that, Trump and Pompeo probably don’t know yet what his best offer is, and it would therefore be unwise to contemplate short-circuiting the negotiating process.
Preoccupation with CVID counterproductively plays into Trump’s penchant for the grand gesture and ignores a few realities: First, American troops on the peninsula, our naval presence in the region and our nuclear umbrella are already an effective deterrent, one that’s worked for years and will continue to work in the future — we don’t want war, but neither does Kim. Second, depending on concessions, and an agreement on effective verification measures (much like the now-scrapped Iran deal), North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and programs can be capped and reduced. Third, improved North-South political and economic relations and a more normal U.S.-North Korea relationship will give Kim a greater sense of security and at some future point might encourage him to believe he doesn’t need a nuclear shield to safeguard North Korean security, and himself.
The administration is paying a price for its initial demands, its rush to stage last month’s summit and the president’s initially inflammatory rhetoric. Having hyped the threat of war last year in his heated exchanges with Kim — “locked and loaded” “fire and fury” “Rocket Man” — and later having exaggerated the peace dividend post-Singapore, Trump is left with reduced leverage; strained ties with North Korea’s main patron, China, over trade; a South Korea led by a left-leaning president who believes deeply in the “sunshine” policy of reconciliation and wants a North-South peace deal, and an overall approach to North Korea based on an unrealistic goal. Trump has also created the impression that he’s vulnerable to being played by Kim and that he has already given away too much — in particular, the photo op Kim craved — for almost nothing in return.
Give Trump his due for what he acknowledged in Singapore: transforming the U.S.-North Korean political relationship and replacing fear with trust and confidence are the keys to achieving meaningful progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization. He secured the release of three Americans held by the North Koreans and worked to bring the remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War home. But he must further understand this: Kim sees nuclear weapons as the only effective guarantee of his regime’s survival. He will cling to these weapons until he reaches the conclusion that the preservation of the North Korean state, in its current form, no longer depends on this nuclear hedge.
With that acknowledgment, the administration needs to decide exactly what price it is willing to pay to achieve the more realistic goal of capping and building down North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities and production infrastructure — and that inevitably means asking how far it is prepared to go in providing reliable security guarantees and assisting North Korea with its economic development goals and with sanctions relief.
If the United States and South Korea are successful in negotiating peace treaties and normalization of relations with North Korea, meeting most of their denuclearization goals, reducing other aspects of the North Korean military threat and gradually integrating North Korea into the regional and global economy, it’s worth Washington, and the world, reconciling with the idea of a nuclear North Korea.