The belligerent unilateralism of Donald Trump’s foreign policy has a notable exception in the US president’s approach to North Korea. Mr Trump’s initial threats to heap fire and fury on Kim Jong Un’s regime have made way for sustained diplomacy to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions. Ahead of a second summit set for later this month in the north Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, Mr Trump has expressed confidence that Mr Kim has switched focus from nuclear weapons to economic modernisation.
The first meeting between the two leaders in Singapore last June produced encouraging atmospherics, but limited practical results. The summit has been followed by North Korea’s suspension of underground nuclear explosions, and of the testing of missile systems. Pyongyang has also destroyed a nuclear test site. Mr Trump in return has dropped joint US-South Korean military exercises. Moon Jae-in, the dovish South Korean president, has taken the opportunity to warm relations with Pyongyang.
Missing, however, has been any real sign that Mr Kim is prepared to dismantle the country’s nuclear capability. Western intelligence estimates suggest the regime already has a stockpile numbering several dozen warheads. It may also be sufficiently advanced in its long range missile programme to be relaxed about suspending flight tests. So Washington has since maintained its sanctions against the regime and Mr Kim has insisted the world should not expect unilateral measures to degrade his nuclear capability.
Doubts have been raised among western foreign policy experts about how much further the process can go without a collision between two sides’ strategic objectives. Dan Coats, the director of US National Intelligence, last month told Congress that it was unlikely that Mr Kim would be prepared to dismantle his nuclear programme. His view echoes that of neighbouring China, which has long said the North Korean leader regards his country’s nuclear status as a vital guarantee of the regime’s security. In this respect, Mr Kim has taken a lesson from the US military interventions in Iraq and Libya.
The unadmitted fact is that the US has recognised de facto that North Korea has joined the club of nuclear weapons states. No one expects the regime to get rid of the capability unless and until the US withdraws its military umbrella from South Korea. This in turn could destabilise the security architecture of north Asia by encouraging military hawks in Tokyo and Seoul to promote their own national nuclear programmes.
Owning up to the reality of a North Korean bomb probably was inevitable, but it underlines the security imperative to persuade Mr Kim at least to begin to degrade Pyongyang’s capabilities.
Alongside an easing of economic sanctions, Pyongyang has signalled it wants replacement by a formal peace treaty of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean war. These demands leave Mr Trump with strong cards to play. As a starting point, the president should press for the decommissioning of the uranium and plutonium production facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Western experts say there are other secret sites. The real test of Mr Kim’s intentions is whether he is prepared, in exchange for an easing and eventual removal of sanctions, to offer a detailed and transparent accounting of the country’s nuclear assets. Such a process would offer a powerful signal that North Korea does indeed want to rejoin the community of nations. Diplomacy would have been shown to work.
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