Achieving denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula will bring peace and stability not only to the Korean Peninsula, but to all Northeast Asia and beyond.

The Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi came with so much expectation and ended abruptly with a big let-down.

While both sides left open the possibility of a future Summit meeting and continued talks leading to a better result, the world has been left in the dark as to what may happen next between the two interlocutors, and whether the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would ever reconcile their differences regarding what exactly each of them meant by “denuclearization” and how to achieve it on the Korean Peninsula.

While both countries may need more time to sober up to the harsh realities and more accurately size up each other in this ultra-high-stake diplomatic roller-coaster involving nuclear weapons, realism and pragmatism need to dawn on the world that, at the real core of the situation, the US and the DPRK may have irreconcilable differences regarding what is denuclearization and how to achieve it. As a result, one may reasonably argue that, despite of all the hype and showmanship, the bilateral talks as currently structured may never result in the real denuclearization the world wants to see.

For the US, the fundamental dilemma it fears is that the more flexibility it may decide to bring onto the table, including lifting partial or total sanctions and signing a peace agreement, may ironically incentivize the DPRK in becoming more entrenched in holding unto the nuclear weapons. “No denuclearization, no lifting the sanctions” seems to the last-ditch bottom-line by the United States.

For the DPRK, the fundamental nightmare it wants to avoid is that despite of all the dazzling good intentions and promises displayed by President Donald Trump and his administration, if the DPRK eventually disposes of its nuclear weapons, the United States may surprise everyone by changing its position again and pounce on and destroy the DPRK with all the fire and fury. For the DPRK, the nuclear weapons may be the most effective and last-resort deterrence against a potentially foul-playing and ever-fickle Uncle Sam, which has bared its nature in how it dealt with Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Colonel Kaddafi. Survival instinct or brutal geopolitics may force the DPRK to keep something, in its open palm or under its sleeve, as a last resort against that potential Armageddon.

Therefore, while President Trump and Chairman Kim held hands and wined and dined in Singapore and Hanoi, the inner folds of their minds may have never been too far away from the specter of conflagration and Armageddon.

Fundamental Differences

The United States has made it clear that it will not lift all the sanctions unless the DPRK commits to a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, which should include the disposal of all the nuclear weapons in the possession of the DPRK. The DPRK offers to commit to denuclearization in phases in exchange for partial or complete lifting of the sanctions. However, in real substance, the technical difference in what should be the correct sequence of lifting sanctions vs. denuclearization is overshadowed by a more frightening substantive difference about what exactly the two countries meant by denuclearization. Denuclearization as far as the DPRK may have in mind may not include the destruction of the nuclear weapons already in its possession. As far as the DPRK is concerned, the destruction of the nuclear development facilities and the cessation of testing of the warheads and the launch vehicles should be sufficient enough to constitute denuclearization.

The Illogic in the US positions about Nuclear Weapons.

Over the years, the US positions on nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction by Iraq, Iran and the DPRK are not only different, but completely inconsistent and illogical with one another:

  1. Iraq: Prior to the Iraq War in 2003, while Iraq insisted that it did not have weapons of mass destruction, the US insisted Iraq had WMD and went in with brutal force and toppled the Iraqi government and killed Saddam Hussein, without the approval of the United Nations.
  2. Iran: While Iran has insisted that it does not have nuclear weapons and does not intent to develop nuclear weapons, the US has accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons and has imposed draconian sanctions against Iran. While the Obama Administration agreed to join the Iran Nuclear Deal, the US under President Trump walked out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and re-imposed the sanctions against Iran and ratcheted up the hostilities and tensions with Iran almost to the breaking point.
  3. The DPRK: Over the years, faced with what it perceived as ever-escalating threat to its security by the US, the DPRK has declared it has developed nuclear weapons and wants to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state. The US government under President Trump went from one extreme of maximum pressure and threat of war, to the other extreme of summit meetings and personal diplomacy and “art of negotiations”, trying to achieve denuclearization which has eluded many previous US administrations.

President Trump has been eager to practice solo heroism and personal diplomacy and has never hesitated to monopolize the credit the US-DPRK re-engagement. It seems that President Trump was confident that his personal charm and negotiation skills can bring enough trust to Chairman Kim and achieve what has been eluding many US administrations before him. It seems that President Trump has been oblivious to the fundamental distrust of the US in the minds of the DPRK leadership and the suspicion of the unpredictability and possible sudden change of course by the US government. Fundamentally, the DPRK believes that the nuclear weapons are their last resort against any possible sudden change of mind by the US and a resulting surprise attack on the DPRK. Fundamentally, the DPRK may look at the nuclear weapons not as the end in itself, but a means to achieve the ultimate end of defending their national security.

From Tango to Group Dance

Against this background, it is time to think about how to break the deadlock and achieve the real denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Informal in nature and non-binding on any party, the following proposal is for the relevant parties to consider. The final decisions will need to be made by the governments of the relevant countries involved.

While the United States and the DPRK are encouraged to continue their bilateral engagement, it is time realize that denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is much more complicated to be achievable by a two-party tango. A group dance involving more than two parties will be necessary to make denuclearization a reality.

  1. Relocation. The DPRK agrees to move all of its nuclear weapons and the launch capacities to China, resulting in the complete and verifiable termination and disposal of its nuclear weapons program in the DPRK.
  2. Commitments to Defend the DPRK. China provides irrevocable commitments to defend the DPRK against foreign aggression of the DPRK initiated by one or several foreign countries.
  3. Stationing of Troops. As part of such commitment, the DPRK may invite China to station certain troops along the 38th Parallel.
  4. Commitment Not to Invade the ROK. The DPRK commits not to invade the Republic of Korea (ROK).
  5. Commitment Not To Invade the DPRK. The US and the ROK commit not to invade the DPRK.
  6. Peace Treaty. A Peace Treaty is to be signed involving the DPRK, the ROK, China and the USA, officially ending the Korean War and committing to peace on the Korean Peninsula.
  7. Peaceful Development of the DPRK. A DPRK Development Fund is to be established aimed at promoting development and infrastructure projects in the DPRK. The DPRK Development Fund will be open for participation by all countries and qualified companies and institutions, especially from China, Russia, the ROK, Japan, the US, the EU and other countries.
  8. Inclusion. Many Items of the DPRK-US Negotiations and the DPRK-ROK Negotiations, including discontinuation of the US-ROK joint military exercises, will be included in the multi-party, multi-facet solution of the denuclearization deal for the Korean Peninsula.
  9. The Tumen Joint Development Area. The DPRK and China agree to set up a joint development zone in the Tumen River Delta Area which will enjoy special status and open to international participation.

Achieving denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula will bring peace and stability to the peoples not only on the Korean Peninsula, but in the Northeast Asia as a region and beyond. We will need to utilize all the wisdom, courage and vision to make this a reality.