When Trump Meets Kim Jong Un

A Realistic Option for Negotiating With North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang, North Korea, May 10, 2016. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

After U.S. President Donald Trump  announced earlier this month that he would consider holding a spring summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there has been a flurry of debate over what the president should seek from the potential meeting. On one end of the spectrum is the popular notion of denuclearizing North Korea, which usually means complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, or CVID. Although professing nominal commitment to this goal, Kim appears to be conditioning it on such formidable requirements that it is extremely unlikely his regime will actually pursue this in any meaningful time frame, no matter how hard the United States sanctions, threatens, or incentivizes it. Kim believes it would be suicidal to give up his “existential” deterrent, so complete denuclearization is simply not on the table today.

Even if it were negotiable in the near term, CVID is based on an outdated understanding of North Korea’s nuclear enterprise. When the U.S. government developed the CVID concept in the mid-2000s, North Korea had conducted just one nuclear explosion test and its long-range ballistic missile program was still in its infancy. North Korea’s technical progress over the intervening decade—five additional nuclear tests and dozens of missile flights—means that a more sophisticated and intrusive approach to rolling back its dangerous capabilities is needed.

On the other end of the spectrum, and what North Korea might accept following a summit, is a simple temporary suspension of nuclear and missile flight testing, as Russia has suggested, for which Kim would still demand some sanctions relief or other incentive. But the Trump administration would immediately reject such a minimalist concession. After all, Pyongyang’s unchecked arsenal is already worrisome, and it can continue to grow and improve without full-scale tests.

So if CVID is non-negotiable and a suspension is not in itself a satisfactory waypoint, what would be an approach that would allow Washington to pursue a highly ambitious

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