President Donald Trump’s announcement that he plans to meet Korea Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam this month is a clear and welcome attempt to regain momentum for negotiations on North Korean nuclear disarmament that have stalled since their first meeting last June.
His announcement during his State of the Union address came less than a week after the State Department official in charge of detailed negotiations with North Korea disclosed that the United States is withdrawing its demand that negotiations start with a full, verifiable disclosure of all North Korean nuclear and missile inventories and locations. U.S. demands for such a list had proved to be a sticking point for discussion of any schedule for arms reductions or disarmament.
The official, Stephen Biegun, said the U.S. will continue to impose sanctions on North Korea but is now ready to follow a path of mutual steps by both sides, taken “simultaneously and in parallel” to ease sanctions and settle disagreements as Pyongyang moves to set limits on and ultimately eliminate its nuclear arsenal. The need for a list of facilities will come up at a later stage.
This is a sensible softening of the initial demand. If it fails to sway North Korea it will then be time to rethink the Trump approach. But there would be no negotiations at all, and a far more threatening environment, if President Trump had not sought a meeting with Mr. Kim last year.
It was extraordinary and unprecedented for the president of the United States to take on the high-risk role of chief arms control negotiator. But it has been Mr. Trump’s view that progress with North Korea depends critically on his personal commitment to the negotiations.
Indeed, during his speech to Congress Mr. Trump claimed that without his leadership, involving an aggressive response to North Korea’s threats in 2017 and his subsequent commitment to work with Mr. Kim, “we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” He added, “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.”
His commitment to Mr. Kim has delivered a very welcome reduction in tension with North Korea and the risk of a new war on the Korean Peninsula, although it is true that North Korea has taken no irreversible steps toward disarmament since Mr. Kim’s pledge at his Singapore meeting with President Trump to “go toward” complete disarmament.
The nation’s intelligence chiefs told Congress last week they think North Korea will never give up nuclear weapons. They may be right. But as decades of negotiation with the Soviet Union showed during the Cold War, achieving limits on nuclear testing and deployment has a high diplomatic value of its own.
Last year the intelligence chiefs predicted North Korea would carry out ICBM missile tests and possibly an atmospheric nuclear test in 2018. These tests did not happen, and Mr. Kim has so far kept his pledge not to test, use or proliferate weapons of mass destruction. The risk of war over miscalculation has been greatly reduced, and North and South Korea are carrying on a peaceful dialogue.
These are desirable outcomes of Mr. Trump’s approach to the North Korean dilemma. The president’s promise to support the re-integration of North Korea into the international trading system once it is free of nuclear weapons undoubtedly faces a slow and difficult road to fruition.
North Korea may well try to cling to some nuclear capability. But at least both sides are talking about making further progress and that is a good thing.