Discussion of the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss “denuclearization” appears confused — or، for the most part، nonexistent — on one potentially key issue that could pose a major roadblock to any real deal، and may constitute a sort of cognitive dissonance between the two sides.
When President Trump and other senior U.S. officials، such as Vice President Mike Pence، Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton، speak of their aims for the summit (and، presumably، ensuing negotiations to hammer out the details of any accord in principle)، they talk about an accord to permanently، verifiably، and irreversibly “denuclearize” North Korea، which has built a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons، both bombs and missiles to deliver them، since detonating its first atomic blast in October 2006. Naturally، they say، since the North Koreans have repeatedly lied in the past and can hardly be trusted، any acceptable agreement must include Pyongyang’s acceptance of intrusive inspections to verify their full compliance — a requirement that would، presumably، be at least as stern as the 2015 Iran nuclear accord، brokered by the Obama administration with five other countries. Trump fulminated against that deal during his campaign and has now abandoned it، claiming it wasn’t tough enough. Given that، unlike Iran، North Korea has already built nuclear weapons and a significant scientificindustrial complex to develop and maintain them، any system of intrusive verification would have to be stringent enough to guard against the danger of secret hiding places for weapons، facilities، or other prohibited activities or items — including the right to conduct unlimited، surprise inspections of military bases and other state-run properties (and by competent nuclear technical experts، not just non-expert observers، like the foreign journalists North Korea allowed to witness from a distance the May 24 “destruction” of its mostly underground Punggye-ri nuclear test site).
As many specialists note، it’s extremely unlikely the historically reclusive North Korean regime، regardless of the economic incentives (i.e.، bribes) it was offered، would ever permit a system of pervasive، permanent snooping، that would pry open its tightly closed society. It’s even a less plausible prospect than Saddam Hussein swallowing the sort of inspections that the George W. Bush administration demanded to forage for weapons of mass destruction in the run up to its 2003 invasion. (As brutal dictatorships go، Saddam’s Iraq was a paragon of openness compared to North Korea.)
But there’s another problem. While Trump & Co. talk of denuclearizing North Korea، Kim Jong Un has only agreed (in his April 27 joint statement with South Korean President Moon Jae-in، reaffirmed when they met again on Saturday May 26) to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. That very different idea means that even in the remote scenario that Kim agreed to intrusive inspections inside North Korea، he would insist، inevitably and at a minimum، on reciprocal rights to inspect comparable locations in South Korea — for example، all U.S. military bases (where around 30،000 troops are currently stationed) and probably South Korean ones as well، plus any and all U.S. warships or aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons that enter South Korea’s waters or airspace. After all، they can argue، how else can the denuclearization of the entire peninsula be assured unless North Korean inspectors are allowed to snoop around all possible hiding places in South Korea، and the Americans withdraw andor dismantle their bases or equipment capable of storing or using nuclear warheads — such as any dual-use (able to use conventional or nuclear) weapons that the U.S. has deployed in South Korea for decades?
These considerations، by the way، are familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. Moscow’s objections to on-site inspections long doomed efforts at nuclear arms control، from the Truman administration’s 1946 Baruch Plan for international control of atomic energy، to Dwight Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” proposal at the 1955 Geneva summit، to John F. Kennedy’s efforts to achieve a comprehensive ban on nuclear tests (he settled instead for the 1963 Limited Test Ban treaty، which forbid explosions above ground، in the atmosphere or at sea، reducing radioactive fallout، but let underground tests continue). Only when Mikhail Gorbachev reversed four decades of Soviet policy in 1986 to allow mutual inspections (and satisfy Ronald Reagan’s endlessly repeated “Doveryai، no proveryai” [“Trust But Verify”] slogan) did dramatic progress become possible to slash both sides’ nuclear arsenals، starting with the near-breakthrough at the October 1986 Reykjavik Reagan-Gorbachev summit and then the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty، presaging further accords.
It is، frankly، hard to imagine the Pentagon or White House allowing North Korean inspectors to poke their noses inside every U.S. military facility or vehicle in South Korea — or any actions that might threaten to denude South Korea of on-site U.S. military protection or nuclear deterrence — as the price to be paid for obtaining comparable rights inside North Korea. Would it be a worthwhile bargain? Is it even conceivable to hash out a workable، credible program? Might Washington and Seoul disagree if Pyongyang genuinely seemed ready to cooperate? Many complicated aspects of the issue require careful، informed consideration. The question is whether Trump، in his headlong، half-baked، helter-skelter rush to secure a Nobel Peace Prize، has even started to think about them. If the U.S. wants a serious discussion of “denuclearization” with North Korea، it should. Observers have noticed that “reciprocity” is one of Trump’s favorite words. He often repeats it lovingly، syllable-by-syllable، like a middle-schooler proud of mastering a vocabulary word for the PSATs، especially when discussing trade. He may not like the sound so much when the North Koreans utter the same word.