Donald Trump can make the deal of the century with Kim Jong-un – if he offers North Korea a blueprint to a ‘brighter future’
- Chan Young Bang says the US lacks a strategy that accounts for the goals of all stakeholders on the peninsula and Kim Jong-un’s desire for regime stability
- Sanctions and diplomatic pressure should be supplemented by the promise of an economic development fund, infrastructural support and security guarantees
When reading most commentaries on North Korea over the past few months, one might be convinced that the world sits at a historic juncture for the Korean peninsula. Against this prevalent, though moderate, optimism, I argue that the moment is crucial — but for reasons currently ignored by the sea of mainstream analyses and op-eds.
Below the surface of recent summits, meetings and declarations lies a twofold question no one has addressed so far: what do US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in mean, exactly, when they hint that “a brighter future” awaits North Korea after denuclearisation, and how would North Korea get there?
To date, there is no indication that either the US or South Korea possess a coherent, tangible plan to deliver on this promise, let alone a strategy that can be shared by all the stakeholders – China, Russia and Japan – whose support is essential, as no single actor possesses all the necessary sticks and carrots to persuade North Korea to denuclearise.
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At the same time, while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has gradually hinted that he may be ready to exchange weapons for economic development, he doesn’t seem to have a concrete exit strategy from what has so far been his only claim to legitimacy — nuclear capability.
To make matters worse, numerous cracks are already visible in the alliance that is supposed to unite not only Seoul and Washington but also Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo; there seems to be a much clearer alignment between the tone of North and South Korean media than between the declarations of South Korea and the US.
Finally, the US increasingly resorts to policing its own allies in attempts to ensure compliance with sanctions, while South Korea overtly advocates for the progressive easing of sanctions and the return to economic aid and joint projects with North Korea.
Though the US remains the key actor, it clearly lacks any insight into how to circumvent the current impasse. The naivety that characterises the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea is encapsulated in a sentence from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest mission to Pyongyang explaining that the US “will get to denuclearisation in a fully verified, irreversible way, and then we will actually deliver on the commitments to make this brighter future for the North Korean people”.
The current US approach, as summarised by Pompeo, offers North Korea nothing valuable; it simply stipulates that a poor, unstable and nuclear-armed state should be disarmed — but then what? Why should Kim embrace a strategy which provides neither a viable survival plan for the regime nor a road map to economic prosperity for the nation?
Kim inherited a country set on hard-line military policy (songgun) and self-reliance (juche), which he gradually tried to steer in the direction of a dual-track policy (byungjin). He is now signalling his commitment to renouncing military action and embracing economic development as well as joining international institutions. Nevertheless, current analyses do not address the need for a blueprint that enables North Korea to do so.
If Trump truly intends to achieve the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea, he needs to offer Kim a comprehensive package deal that he cannot refuse.
Such an offer, however, must ensure a “brighter future” for all of the stakeholders and their respective security interests — denuclearisation accompanied by rapid economic modernisation and market-oriented reform, which together would ensure permanent peace, stability and lasting prosperity on the Korean peninsula.
However, a policy that meets the stakeholders’ objectives must also satisfy Kim’s — to preserve his regime at all costs. For him to even consider a deal, it must guarantee his regime a significantly better chance at survival through rapid and sustained economic modernisation.
Together, in the face of debilitating economic sanctions and pressure enforced by China and Russia, nuclear deterrence and diplomatic isolation, the prospect of receiving an economic development fund from the collective stakeholder nations, infrastructural support from South Korea to transition to a market-oriented economy, the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the US and Japan, and firm security guarantees and reassurances of alliances would become evermore appealing to a country that prioritises survival above all else.
Trump, Moon and Kim are in a quandary. They have gone from harsh, intimidating rhetoric to the bargaining table in the span of mere months and are now stalling over their next steps.
Should Trump approach the upcoming talks with a viable blueprint in hand — one that meets the security interests of all the stakeholders and offers North Korea a tangible survival strategy — he will guarantee not only denuclearisation but also peace, prosperity, and the institution of the brightest of futures on the Korean peninsula.
Dr Chan Young Bang is president of KIMEP University, principal investigator at the DPRK Strategic Research Centre, and former economic adviser to both President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and former president of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev