November 20, 2019

It's Time to Move Forward on North Korea

“The denuclearization process with North Korea is going nowhere fast. Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. has no plans to suspend any more major military exercises with South Korea. Mattis also said that smaller-scale exercises in the South would continue, lending credence to the North’s accusation that a nuclear submarine recently dropped off a fresh contingent of U.S. special operations forces at the Jinhae naval base for training. Halting these kinds of exercises was Washington’s portion of the tacit “freeze for freeze” agreement the United States and North Korea appeared to have reached a few months ago.

Also last week, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly canceled a long-planned visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, just days after Pompeo finally named a special envoy to spearhead working-level negotiations with the North. Trump’s decision was reportedly motivated by a letter he received the same day from Kim Jong Un’s spy chief, Kim Yong Chol, who warned that negotiations may fall apart if the White House fails to take steps toward negotiating a peace treaty with the North.

There’s no reason to believe North Korea is holding up its end of the bargain either. Most available evidence suggests Pyongyang continues to develop its ballistic missiles and its enrichment capabilities.

North Korea never pledged to denuclearize on the timeline the White House said it would, of course, and since Singapore, it has stymied the diplomatic process over largely symbolic issues. The two sides are at an impasse over how to move forward. The White House wants full denuclearization. Full denuclearization is a non-starter for Pyongyang. Surrendering its nuclear program would only invite an attack. A partial handover is possible, but the U.S. won’t abide by an agreement that simply allows the North to rebuild what it just gave away. A peace treaty is possible, but the North would demand that the U.S. withdraw its 28,000 troops from the peninsula – a nonstarter without full denuclearization. And even if Washington signed a peace treaty, it would be sacrificing its one source of leverage over the North.”

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