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North Korea summit: So what would a nuclear deal look like?

path to progress

Patience will be a virtue, it seems, in reaching a denuclearization deal with North Korea. While the outline of such a deal is still hazy,  the path is becoming clearer: a drawn-out process of give-and-take.

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President Trump talks with Kim Yong-chol, former North Korean military intelligence chief and one of leader Kim Jong-un's closest aides, after their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on June 1, 2018.

Andrew Harnik/AP

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With President Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un back on track, attention has turned once again to what a denuclearization deal between the United States and North Korea might look like.

As the two countries labor to reduce the wide gap between them over what denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula even means, one thing seems certain about a potential deal: Forget the Libya model, in which Muammar Qaddafi gave up his weapons-of-mass-destruction program, lock, stock, and barrel, before receiving any benefits in return.

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It’s been the new White House national security adviser, John Bolton, who has pressed for a deal with Mr. Kim on the order of what Mr. Qaddafi agreed to in 2003 with the Bush administration. Even Vice President Mike Pence started touting the model.

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But it was also all the White House talk of applying that pattern to North Korea that spooked Kim and nearly jettisoned plans for the summit. The clear message from Pyongyang: We are not Libya, so citing it is a dead end.

The result? By the time Mr. Trump announced Friday that the summit he had abruptly canceled a week earlier was back on, the talk had veered sharply from quick action to gradual steps. Trump now speaks of a “process” and a likely series of summits instead of just one, with references to incremental implementation of any accord.

Yet while the timing of any deal may now be clear – good-bye “all at once,” hello process and step-by-step – there is still little clarity just a week before the leaders are to meet in Singapore on what the specific steps in any deal might be.

However experts in North Asian and nonproliferation issues, some with decades of experience dealing with North Korea, say there are some key elements that will almost certainly be part of any deal.

Moreover, many experts now say, it is likely to resemble past US deals with North Korea – including those launched with fanfare, only to collapse later.

First among key elements, the US and North Korea would have to narrow the gap between them over just what “denuclearization” means. Mr. Bolton and others in the administration have shifted to speaking of the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, or “CVID” for short.

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For its part, North Korea has consistently spoken of denuclearization as a long-term and aspirational concept, encompassing the US nuclear presence on the peninsula as well as its own programs.

Verification

“The biggest gap in all of this is how we define denuclearization, and how the North Koreans define it,” says Victor Cha, who served in the George W. Bush White House as the National Security Council’s director for Asian affairs. “’Denuclearization of the Peninsula’ is a phrase the North Koreans have used for decades.”

One reason the North Korea case is so complicated is that Pyongyang already possesses nuclear weapons and some sophisticated means, including long-range missiles, of delivering those warheads. North Korea openly compares itself to India, which weathered a period of international rejection of its nuclear arsenal.

North Korea sets off an explosive charge as part of what it says was the complete dismantling of its nuclear test center in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on May 24, 2018.
KCNA/Reuters

Any deal would have to include a full and verifiable accounting of the North’s nuclear arsenal, delivery systems, and technologies – in other words, Pyongyang would have to come clean on what it possesses in a way it never has before, these experts say.

Moreover, a deal would include a set of timelines for reducing the warheads and weapons delivery systems the North possesses – for example, the US is keen to remove the long-range ballistic missiles the Kim regime tested over the first year of Trump’s tenure and which may be capable of reaching the US West Coast.

Virtually no one – including the US intelligence community in a recent assessment – sees Kim agreeing to give every piece of his nuclear program. For example, Dr. Cha says convincing Kim to give up every one of his estimated two to five dozen nuclear warheads is “not going to happen,” given the central place Kim sees an established nuclear status playing in his regime’s survival.

But if the hurdle of defining “denuclearization” can be crossed in a way that meets both sides’ needs, experts say, then a historic deal incorporating the other key elements might indeed be attainable.

The step-by-step plan

“In the end, the most important first indicator of whether there is something everyone can agree with will be whether the North can agree to a full and verifiable declaration of their capabilities,” says Cha, now the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It was over the prickly issue of a full and verifiable declaration of North Korea’s nuclear assets that the Bush administration’s negotiations with the North broke down in 2007, he notes.

Then comes the question of arms and facilities’ reduction and dismantlement. And increasingly analysts say that if the “all at once” Libya model is off the table, what has replaced it is a “step-by-step” plan that follows each step the North takes toward “denuclearization” with an incentive – the lifting of some sanctions, the delivery of some humanitarian assistance – to keep the process going.

“It’s clear by now that the North Koreans aren’t going to do a Libya kind of deal, but on the other hand if Kim Jong-un sticks to ‘We’ll do it someday,’ then Trump’s not going to be interested, either,” says Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies and Asian security specialist at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

“But the plan that could work is a step-by-step approach,” he adds. “The North gives up a few nuclear weapons first, at which point the US drops a few sanctions,” Mr. Kazianis offers as an example. “Then they give up a few ICBM missiles, and the US takes another agreed step. That’s the only way out of this trap."

He adds: “I really believe that if they can come up with a step-by-step plan that yields some significant results by January of 2021 [the end of Trump's first term], then I think it’s a pathway that could work.”

How big a downpayment?

One thing the past month of intense diplomacy has revealed, specialists say, is that Kim appears to be less interested in the kind of economic carrots that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other US officials have been dangling as incentives, and more focused on attaining the security guarantees that would definitively take his regime out of US cross-hairs.

US officials have been mum on what security guarantees the US would be willing to offer to the North as part of a step-by-step plan. But even before Trump began referring to a “process” last week, some US officials have hinted at a growing openness on the US side toward incremental implementation of actions – as long as a synchronized plan starts off with the bang of major action and not with easily reversible baby steps.

“The question is what could be front-loaded in a process that’s inevitably going to go on for some time, and then what would be acceptable to the North Korean side in return for that front-loading,” the chief US diplomat for East Asia, Susan Thornton, said in remarks in Tokyo in May. As long as the North is willing to make a “big down payment,” she said, the US could be open to a phased implementation.

But even if an accord kicks off with the kind of “bang” the Trump White House wants, the pace of follow-on steps is going to be a key negotiating point, some analysts say.

Frank Aum, a former Pentagon North Korea adviser now at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, notes that many experienced diplomats are speaking of a 15-year timeline for achieving the Korean Peninsula’s as yet undefined denuclearization. Mr. Aum says a key part of negotiations will be “how much you can accelerate the steps right now.”