In His Summit with Kim, Trump Should Apply the Lessons from Libya

Kim Jong Un watches the test-fire of a strategic submarine underwater ballistic missile (not pictured), in this undated photo released May 9, 2015. (KCNA/Reuters)
We cannot afford for North Korea to pretend to eliminate its nuclear program while we pretend to believe it.

The pageantry, platitudes, and optimistic assessments from the Moon government on full display at the just concluded North–South summit have raised the stakes for the highly anticipated meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. That meeting, expected to take place by June, is eliciting a range of expectations, from cautious optimism to assured skepticism. For many observers, Kim’s reported willingness to consider “denuclearization” has generated hope that this time, after decades of failed diplomacy, the outcome will be different. The North’s announcement of a freeze on nuclear- and ballistic-missile tests only reinforced this expectation.

In contrast, skeptics point out that there is nothing new in Kim’s playbook. The North’s “smile diplomacy” is directed not at achieving a permanent peace on the Peninsula but at undermining international sanctions while driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea. After all, in exchange for concessions, Pyongyang has agreed on multiple occasions to denuclearization and freezes but has always cheated on those commitments.

The outcome of the Trump–Kim meeting, if it occurs, is unknowable at this time. It will depend on many factors. What, if anything, is Kim willing to give up? Is the North’s acceptance of denuclearization still tied to unacceptable conditions, including the removal of all U.S. forces from South Korea and the U.S. withdrawal of its nuclear guarantees to Seoul and Tokyo? Does the announced freeze reflect a willingness on the part of the North to forgo development and deployment of an ICBM-class threat against the U.S. homeland, or has it already achieved that long-held objective? (For months, the intelligence community has assessed that the North is only a few months away from having this capability.) Is the North willing to abandon its nuclear program entirely, or will it insist on maintaining reprocessing and enrichment capabilities for “peaceful” purposes?

Other key factors will be shaped by U.S. policy choices. For example, we know from past mistakes that, if Washington relieves pressure on the North prior to the meeting, failure is certain. The “maximum pressure” campaign, perhaps in combination with the president’s stated willingness to use force to prevent North Korea from acquiring the capability to hold American cities hostage to nuclear-armed missile attack, has seemingly worked to get the North to the table. In the lead-up to the meeting, more pressure, not less, is the best means for improving the prospects for a positive outcome.

Perhaps the most important policy choice before the administration is the negotiating approach it will take before and at the meeting. The advice from many veterans of past negotiations is both conventional and wrong. The assumption is that success in any negotiation is dependent on both sides benefiting equally. It means “all sides must give as well as get.” It means “carrots as well as sticks.” It means a “step-by-step” process that has always meant concessions before denuclearization. With North Korea, this is the approach we have followed for 25 years, always with the same outcome. If we don’t change our approach, there is little prospect for success.

Equating negotiations with compromise is, while a classic American arms control principle, also a formula for failure. This is the approach followed by previous administrations, with identical results. While we negotiated, most often granting serial concessions, Pyongyang built up its nuclear and missile forces. At times, the North would readily take the carrots in exchange for empty promises or temporary pauses but never veered from its quest. For North Korea, negotiations have never been about shared benefits or compromise. Rather, it sees negotiations as an opportunity to seek unilateral advantage and buy time to expand its illicit, often clandestine programs.

A different model is that pursued with Libya in 2003. Those negotiations led to complete denuclearization in four months. All associated centrifuge and uranium-conversion equipment was removed to the United States, along with Libya’s longer-range missiles. North Korea is obviously not Libya of 15 years ago. The Libyan nuclear program, although much larger than assessed at the time, was far less advanced than Pyongyang’s. The Libyan missile program and conventional threat were nothing approaching that of North Korea. And the nature of the regime was different. The thugs who constituted the Qaddafi clique, while guilty of heinous crimes, were choir boys compared with those of the Kim regime. But we dealt with them, and we brought their nuclear program to Tennessee. This was a diplomatic, negotiated outcome based not on the search for compromise but on achieving U.S. interests and advancing international nonproliferation goals.

The question is not whether North Korea is different from Libya but what lessons learned from the Libyan experience can be applied to North Korea today. Four relevant lessons are:

• Insist on a strategic decision from Kim — not words but concrete actions — to abandon the nuclear program in months not years. With Libya, it became apparent that Qaddafi had made the decision to abandon his nuclear program when, on a secret in-country visit by technical experts, the Libyans provided access to previously unknown facilities and volunteered documents and drawings, including those of a nuclear warhead. With North Korea, a strategic decision to abandon its nuclear program may take a different form. But without a strategic decision, there will be little merit in the outcome, as it will only indicate a continuation of past behavior that has always ended in failure.

• Use all tools of statecraft in the context of a comprehensive strategy. In its North Korea policy, he Trump administration is doing a good job in employing a wide range of tools, including diplomacy (especially with China and U.S. allies), economic sanctions, intelligence, and the threat of the use of force. It is essential to avoid the mistake of past administrations, shifting to a policy of diplomacy only and having “talks” with North Korea masquerade as a strategy.

• Insist on effective verification. North Korea has violated every agreement it has made regarding its nuclear program. None of those agreements contained effective verification. We know from experience that this must include anywhere, anytime inspections, as well as full and immediate access to people and documentation. If this condition is not met, any negotiated agreement will fail. With the North, it is a matter not of trust but of verify.

• Don’t bargain on denuclearization. Though it may be counterintuitive to many, bargaining — the process of trading X for Y — can actually undermine the chances for success. This does not mean that U.S. negotiators should impose or demand conditions beyond denuclearization that are unacceptable to the North Koreans. Rather, the U.S. side should state its principled position and not compromise on the complete, irreversible, and verifiable dismantlement of the nuclear program. Holding firm on the fundamentals of denuclearization does not rule out a win–win outcome, a result the U.S. should seek. Nor does it rule out an outcome that allows Kim to save face.

The above approach will surely be rejected by many professional diplomats and negotiators alike, who will criticize it for making a deal impossible. These same professionals, had the opportunity existed, would undoubtedly have made a similar case against the approach taken with Libya. But the Libya talks were conducted in secret without their input, and the successful removal of Libya’s program made their opinions moot.

What we seek is a successful negotiated outcome, not to score debating points.

The critics of adapting to North Korea the lessons learned from Libya will also likely argue that the model doesn’t apply because Qaddafi was overthrown after abandoning his nuclear program — a line also frequently used by Pyongyang. But this is about negotiating strategies, not about the fate of Qaddafi. Eight years after Tripoli gave up its nuclear aspirations, President Obama decided to intervene in Libya, apparently without regard to a day-after plan or without any consideration of the nonproliferation message that intervention would signal. But that decision should not preclude us from applying relevant lessons to meet the present challenges we face. What we seek is a successful negotiated outcome, not to score debating points.

President Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, prides himself on his negotiating skills. He often cites the failures of his predecessors in their dealings with North Korea and Iran, and the fatal flaws of the agreements reached with those countries — agreements that have permitted the nuclear and missile threats to the United States and our allies to grow. Those fatal flaws stemmed at least in part from the approach taken by the U.S. negotiators.

If we are going to have any chance of success in future negotiations, and no doubt the odds are against it, we must learn from past failures and past successes. We must also prepare for the full range of alternative outcomes, whether diplomacy succeeds or fails. We can no longer afford for North Korea to pretend to eliminate its nuclear program while we pretend to believe it.


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