What Denuclearization Means
Most account of North Korea’s intentions suggest that by “denuclearization” the DPRK means an end to nuclear testing, as well as an end to the more egregious forms of ballistic missile testing. The Trump administration will tout “denuclearization” as much more, but we shouldn’t immediately leap to the conclusion that this is a misunderstanding; diplomatic language is intended to be sufficiently flexible that both parties can claim a win, even if one side makes more concessions that the other. If “denuclearization” actually means the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea, and if Trump manages to accomplish this, then he does in fact deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
With respect to the question of North Korean motivation… my sense at the moment is that North Korea is effectively cashing in its chips. It has nuclear weapons, and these weapons can be improved without much in the way of additional testing (potentially through the acquisition of advanced computers and modeling software from China). The collapse of North Korea’s underground test site is a consideration, but probably not a decisive one. The DPRK has ballistic missiles, and while missiles can always be improved by additional testing, the existing arsenal is probably sufficient for deterrent purposes. Moreover, Kim’s recent visit to China may well have included a request for the transfer of additional ballistic missile technology, or at least for access to Chinese testing. With nukes and the systems needed to deliver them, Kim can now focus on economic growth. Finally, it also seems likely that the sanctions (especially the financial ones) have had quite a bit of bite.
That said, we probably won’t ever have a firm grasp on how much Trump’s threats mattered. It’s certainly possible that Pyongyang took the threat of war seriously enough that it decided to make concessions; there were lots of folks in the United States and elsewhere who believed that the US might well launch a preventive strike against the DPRK.
What Talks Could Achieve
We should emphasize this point; it should not be easy for a country to transition to being a nuclear power. More weapons are not, the ghost of Kenneth Waltz notwithstanding, better; the chance for accidents and misunderstandings increases as the number of nuclear powers goes up. Nations should have to pay a severe price for nuclear proliferation, primarily in order to dissuade other countries from pursuing nukes. North Korea has paid a price that few countries would find sensible; Iran, for example, clearly does not believe that the DPRK’s level of sacrifice was worthwhile. In that sense, the proliferation regime doesn’t precisely have a “win,” but it did accomplish one of its core functions, even if this deal represents the beginning of North Korea’s reintegration into the global system.
We’re sort of beyond the point where we can believe, with considerable confidence, than openness to international society will unproblematically induce the collapse of communist regimes. Thus, we can’t be all that optimistic that democracy-whisky-sexy will bring an end to the DPRK in short order. However, there are still some positive, achievable goals. Relaxing the sanctions on North Korea will almost certainly result in a net reduction of human misery, even if KJU’s inner circle will benefit disproportionately. And while the best we hope for the DPRK might be for it to develop politically and economically along the lines of the PRC, this is without doubt an extraordinary improvement over the current situation.
A carefully negotiated set of agreement could also put limits on the mischief that the DPRK could commit through the proliferation of nuclear and ballistic missile technology. The former especially is probably the biggest remaining concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapon program; even if the DPRK never exports a nuke (unlikely but not impossible), it could easily export the technical expertise necessary to build nukes, which is a net negative for global stability. The diffusion of ballistic missile technology is also generally bad, although there are quite a few sources for would-be proliferants. Relaxing the sanctions gives the DPRK something to lose, meaning that the US has more of a stick to ensure North Korean compliance. The South Korean role in this is obviously key; the current government believes both that it needs to reduce the temperature along the DMZ, and that it needs to flatter both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Eun.
What about reunification? Given that the entire political and military hierarchy of North Korea will be subject to a wide range of civil and criminal prosecution (international and domestic) for an equally wide range of crimes against humanity, the most likely path to reunification remains the collapse of the DPRK, followed by its occupation and integration into the ROK. And since that’s not something that’s going to be on the table in these negotiations, it’s not really worth thinking about.
Why it Matters that this is the GOP
The Iran Deal demonstrated that the “Only Nixon Can Go to China” logic isn’t foolproof; Democratic administrations can conclude arms control negotiations with adversaries, even against unified hawkish opposition. But… the JCPOA may turn out to be the exception that proves the rule. Contra the idiocy of Glenn Greenwald and his merry band of morons, the Democratic Party is not merely reactive to Trump administration foreign policy initiatives. A deal with North Korea (whatever the details) will likely get some pushback from the Dems, but not nearly as much as any deal reached by a Democratic President from a GOP Congress. If Barack Obama was about to sit down with Kim Jong Eun and potentially conclude a deal that would leave the DPRK’s nuclear weapons intact, my guess is that the GOP reaction would be less than celebratory.
Consequently, in the sad, stupid reality that we live in it may actually be true that only a GOP president could have reached an accord that would normalize North Korea’s nukes and reintegrate North Korea with the international community.
Why it Matters that It’s Trump
The diplomacy of nuclear weapons is remarkably complicated, and includes a wide array of protocols, shibboleths, sacred cows, and procedures that negotiators have developed and honed since the 1950s. All of these are important in their own ways, but they sometimes work to take potential agreements off the table. In the case of North Korea, the diplomatic process has been frozen for quite some time in part because of the need to adhere to these kinds of procedures; we cannot go to the table without preconditions, neither can they, negotiations have to fit within the Six Party Framework, etc.
Trump does not understand the diplomatic protocols associated with nuclear diplomacy, and thus is not particularly hung up on them. Trump has also demonstrated a consistent admiration for autocrats such as Kim Jong Eun. Finally, given his self-description as a “dealmaker” Trump is likely to make significant concessions in order to arrive at some kind of agreement, more concessions than we would normally expect from a GOP president. But such an agreement, which would have represented a “loss” on the standards by which nuclear diplomacy normally functions (giving up core concessions on North Korea’s reintegration in return for less significant concessions regarding voluntary moratoriums on nuclear testing) is still better than the status quo we were looking at early 2017.
Things could still go very wrong. North Korea has reason to desire more nuclear and ballistic missile tests, particularly the latter. Its industrial base is less sophisticated than the other nuclear powers, and consequently both the nuclear devices and their delivery systems are less reliable. It is entirely possible that Pyongyang will simply tear up any accord that it comes to with the United States, which very well might lead to war. It’s also possible that the Trump administration is using these negotiations as a pretext for war; the last stop before the “bloody nose” that is supposed to put Kim in his place.
But a few months ago, the Korean Peninsula was looking like the most dangerous place in the world. Now, it looks less so, and that’s unquestionably a good thing.