- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un indicated to South Korea that he’s willing to halt missile and nuclear tests in exchange for security guarantees from the US.
- An agreement might even include the dismantling of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
- President Donald Trump took credit for the development, claiming his administration’s recent economic sanctions led to the offer.
- However, the deal seems to require US participation in negotiations — something Trump has said won’t happen without a guarantee of total denuclearization.
- The move could weaken existing sanctions by playing the Trump administration against itself.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a group of South Korean diplomats dined for four hours on Monday night, emerging with a possible deal to stop the North’s nuclear weapons and missile testing program.
Yet North Korea has a checkered history of adhering to anti-nuclear treaties, and the proposal may exploit President Trump’s ire toward Kim Jong Un, not to mention his administration’s rigid diplomatic stance toward North Korea.
“People are saying, ‘They promised to stop nuclear tests and missile tests,'” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear-policy expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told Business Insider. “What I saw was that they promised to stop those tests while they were negotiating with the United States.”
To Lewis, who also publishes Arms Control Wonk, a requirement for direct US involvement in talks “sounds less like a promise to stop [testing] and more like a permission slip” to continue.
What’s more, he added, Kim Jong Un’s proposal might be engineered to significantly weaken economic sanctions that the Trump administration has leveraged against North Korea.
How the offer could help North Korea and undermine Trump, US interests
Trump has also flipped back-and-forth between rejecting negotiations with North Korea outright to — less frequently — expressing optimism about the possibility, should the nation be ready to rid itself of all intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and reactors. (North Korea’s ICBMs reportedly now have the ability strike US targets.)
Lewis said the Trump administration’s sanctions are indeed painful to North Korea, but noted Kim Jong Un is likely most concerned about ending joint military exercises around the Korean Peninsula between US forces and their allies, such as South Korea and Japan.
“They’ve always wanted those military exercises shut off, because military exercise is how real wars start — that’s the cover that everybody gives for amassing troops,” Lewis said. “So basically they have to go on alert every time we do them. And we used to do them during the harvest [season], which was not nice.”
Offering a peace deal could motivate South Korea to stall or cancel the next joint military exercise, which is scheduled for the spring. (Such exercises heighten tensions and can lead to catastrophic miscalculations, Lewis previously told Business Insider.)
“From a North Korean perspective, they’d like to get the cancellation of the exercises. But this also helps them manage their sanctions problem,” Lewis added. “If they’re seen as saying, ‘Look, we’re willing to stop the missile tests, just as soon as the US shows up,’ but then the US doesn’t show up,” then it’s a potentially big win for Kim Jong Un.
All eyes on the Trump administration
Refusing to sit down with North Korea is a strong possibility, given the Trump administration’s frequent and stern messaging about negotiating with the country.
However, acting tough against Kim Jong Un’s offer, or simply ignoring it, could backfire.
“If they then do another missile test, how does the sanctions fight play out?” Lewis said of North Korea. “The South Koreans and the Russians and the Chinese all refuse to back more sanctions because they’ll say, ‘Well, there’s a standing offer from the North Koreans that you’re not taking.’ […] At the end of the day, what they’re really looking at doing is countering the US campaign of pressure.”
China and Russia might also spin a lack of US talks to weaken or ignore existing sanctions, since those countries “don’t really owe us any favors,” Lewis said. Even South Korea may join them as it pushes for an opportunity to make peace with its adversarial neighbor.
“This is generally how the sanctions game is played, and it’s just that the Trump administration is really bad at it,” Lewis said. “The whole point of sanctions is to get pressure on another country to do something. You can’t really convince other countries to go along with you unless you are seen as being reasonable — unless you’re being seen as willing to take the sanctions off in exchange for good behavior, unless you are seen as trying to reach a diplomatic settlement.”
He added that Trump’s appointees, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, generally “say the right words” to keep the door open to possible negotiations with North Korea, but Trump often undermines their statements with his own. (Lewis noted, however, that the president’s statements on Tuesday “were fine for Trump.”)
Regardless, North Korea has thrown a large diplomatic ball into Trump’s court, and the nations of the world await to see if, and how, the US responds in a meaningful way.