A Crucial First Step for Negotiating With North Korea


For over a year, security and Korean experts have appealed for the Trump administration to give diplomacy a chance to end the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Now, the president has agreed to hold a summit with Kim Jong Un, though the details are yet to be worked out. This, it appears, is what Trump’s brand of high-risk, high-reward diplomacy looks like.

America has tried and failed many times to achieve a negotiated denuclearization of North Korea. There is no evidence that Kim Jong Un has suddenly decided to trade away his regime’s nuclear weapons, that he has pursued at all costs since coming to power. Perhaps Trump believes that the “maximum pressure” campaign has forced Kim to cry uncle, but few others do. But even short of immediate and total denuclearization, it is possible to distinguish between good and bad summit outcomes.

Diplomacy with North Korea deserves support, but only when guided by principles. Giving talks the space and time to succeed will require both sides to take concrete steps early in the process. If the summit takes place, America should seek a “deep freeze” on the North’s nuclear program, with effective verification. Such a freeze would require North Korea to stop the production of enriched uranium and plutonium usable in nuclear weapons. This goal is ambitious but feasible. The deep freeze should be the condition for further negotiations to continue, to make sure the nuclear program is not advancing as negotiations go on. While it will be difficult for both sides to reach agreement on such a step, it is the best and most lasting way to ensure that North Korea is serious about diplomacy, not just playing the Americans for a summit that would bestow legitimacy on the regime. If a deep freeze is achieved, the United States can focus on securing a longer-term agreement that accounts for North Korea’s past nuclear production and develops a realistic step-by-step process that would lead to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

A deep freeze would be a valuable step, and the United States and its allies should be willing to take serious steps to secure it. Suspending all strategic bomber reassurance missions, curtailing military exercises, providing enhanced humanitarian aid, and establishing military-to-military communications links to de-escalate a potential crisis would all be reasonable offers for the United Staes and South Korea to make to secure a deep freeze. Under such an interim agreement, North Korea could maintain its current capabilities and not have to make the strategic decision up front to hand over its nuclear weapons. The deep freeze option buys both sides time to determine if a fundamental breakthrough is possible.

The Need for a Freeze

Right now, North Korea is adhering to a self-adopted moratorium on nuclear weapon and long-range missile tests. But it still can and will continue to produce nuclear weapons and materials, as well as missiles. In other words, under this soft, or “shallow” freeze, the program looks frozen but continues to advance. It can also be reversed at any time.

The problem with negotiating under a soft freeze is that in the past, North Korea has simply used talks to play for time. Some argue that the 1994 Agreed Framework allowed North Korean missile programs to advance, and that negotiations in 2005 only bought time for North Korea’s uranium enrichment program to grow. Now that the North has achieved a significant nuclear capability, that concern may be less salient. Still, accepting merely a soft freeze while talks continue would allow North Korea to grow the size of its program while playing the role of peacemaker. While this is better than North Korea actively testing, it is far from a stable situation.

At a minimum, the Trump administration should seek a similar deep freeze as a condition for negotiations to continue. In the case of the Iran negotiations, a verified pause or hard freeze was critical to insulate the White House from attacks about being played by Tehran. This was also the basis for the 1994 Agreed Framework which, while ultimately unsuccessful, did freeze North Korea’s nuclear material production for many years, under verification. If North Korea was willing to accept such a condition before, it may be willing to do so again, especially in exchange for positive moves by the United States. In the end, the United States may have to agree to smaller, incremental steps toward this goal, but it remains a sound and valuable starting point to test North Korean intent.

While difficult, a deep freeze is far from impossible. North Korea accepted as much in 1994 and Iran accepted the same standard under the interim Joint Plan of Action. While far from a preferred outcome, this would enable North Korea to maintain its current capabilities while negotiators pursue a more comprehensive dialogue that could address the wide range of issues confronting them, including a peace treaty, confidence-building measures, and future economic and diplomatic relations.

It is important, however, to remember that North Korea today is not the North Korea of 1994 or the Iran of 2015. In those two cases, America had high confidence it knew all the places these countries were producing nuclear materials, but that is not the case in North Korea today. Our knowledge of the country’s missile production sites and capabilities is similarly incomplete. Under a deep freeze, the regime would have to declare, truthfully, all critical sites, including those producing both plutonium (easy) and highly enriched uranium (much harder) as well as missile production sites. This knowledge would be a lasting benefit for U.S. intelligence, so some concessions would be worthwhile even if the hard freeze proves impossible to sustain over time. While it has been years since North Korea allowed inspectors access to its facilities, the type of access would not be without some precedent in North Korea. I spent a winter at Yongbyon when the Agreed Framework was in force in 1995–96, and other U.S. representatives and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were able to do real work in Korea for many years, until 2002.

Conventional wisdom, or those convinced North Korea will never denuclearize, will think a hard freeze is too ambitious. But it remains the best and perhaps only concrete way to determine quickly whether North Korea is serious about eliminating its nuclear capabilities without requiring it to do so up front. If North Korea rejects these terms, that would indicate that North Korea is not genuinely committed to nuclear elimination. The deep freeze is the minimum necessary starting point to make the prestige and risk of a leaders summit worth the risk.

Getting There

What should the United States do to achieve a hard freeze? Quite a lot. A soft freeze can be reversed at anytime, and it is hard to argue that extending the current freeze would be worth giving much to the North. The Trump team has already said the sanctions and pressure campaign will be maintained until the North takes real steps to disarm.

But if North Korea is prepared to accept a deep freeze, the United States and South Korea should consider real steps to make the freeze happen and keep diplomatic negotiations going. U.S. steps could include economic and political concessions, as well as changes to the nature and pace of military exercises with South Korea. Just as with the Iran deal, it will be important for the United States to be able to reverse any concessions it makes. China and South Korea may also be willing to provide incentives for the talks to continue, which may be useful, but the United States must be sure that it can convince both countries to reverse course if North Korea fails to comply with its pledges. The Iran deal provides a model for this “snap-back” process.

What’s Possible, What’s Desirable

The worst summit outcome would be that nothing happens, no agreement is reached, and the United States is blamed for its failure. The status of a summit will have been given for free to the North, and South Korea will lose further confidence in its U.S. ally. Worse, having tried and failed at diplomacy, Trump might give more credence to the voices who claim the only way to address the North Korea nuclear threat is through preventive military attack.

A better outcome would be an agreement on the general outline of a broader agreement, and to have their respective teams develop a binding, verifiable denuclearization agreement. The tactic of having leaders meet early to set direction and agreeing to come back when the terms are finalized has worked in the past. This is how President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev achieved the New START agreement in record time. They met early, raised expectations, created space for the negotiators to do their work, and ordered their teams to work out the details. Tough points were reserved for the leaders to solve at the end, with positive results. I understand why some believe the Trump administration is giving away a summit too cheaply, but now that the president has announced it, it is hard to see how he could reverse course without a clear provocation by North Korea.

The New START model is perhaps the best one can hope for from an early meeting between Trump and Kim, though it will require significant diplomatic prowess. While the bench of expertise in Washington is thin, it is far from empty. Highly competent working-level experts in the White House, State Department, the Energy Department, and the intelligence community remain in place. They will need senior leadership to coordinate the many moving pieces of a negotiation. The nuclear verification terms alone require a full team, to say nothing of the frequent flyer miles to be accrued keeping South Korea and Japan on board. Side trips to Beijing and Moscow will also be in order.

An optimal outcome would be a summit that produces a detailed, binding, verified agreement that requires North Korea to take concrete steps first, and where the United States would respond with commensurate steps. No one, not even the president’s own team, believes that the intricate details of such an agreement can be hammered out in two months. It will take time to ensure the details are right, the terms are clear, and the sequencing is responsible. We should aim high, but be willing to compromise if the outcome improves our and our allies’ security.

In the end, I still have doubts that North Korea will fully denuclearize. But we should have doubts. That is what makes good agreements. If a hard freeze is matched by positive U.S. and South Korea steps, and leads to a broader negotiation that reduces tensions in Korea and the threat North Korea poses, then it is well worth pursuing. If, in the end, such a step is not possible or sustainable, America will need to rely on containment and deterrence to address the threat posed by Pyongyang. Thus, the way we go into the negotiations will be a big factor in determining whether we leave them safer than we started, or more at risk.

A New Hope?

Diplomats have dreamed of a deal where North Korea agrees to eliminate its entire nuclear and missile program since the George H. W. Bush administration. Even the most passionate and committed diplomats who have worked the problem have doubted that such a historic move was possible, and they should be similarly skeptical of it today. But many people thought America would need to go to war to stop Iran’s nuclear program in 2011, a fate that was headed off by serious, sustained negotiations. Sometimes long odds pay off, and we should keep an open mind as this process unfolds. People forget that Americans have worked on the ground before to freeze and dismantle parts of North Korea’s nuclear program. One can debate whether these efforts were ever sincere, or if North Korea lost faith in the process over time. Yet the fact remains that if Kim Jong Un makes a strategic decision to reverse course, many things thought to be impossible today will be possible tomorrow.

If the negotiations are to have any chance of success, there are a lot of hard questions and long nights ahead. It won’t be easy to ensure that the United States has an effective negotiating team that can coordinate policy at home, keep the allies on board, and produce a solid outcome at the negotiating table. The president and his team will need a level of professionalism that they have not displayed thus far. But even so, the chance that this apparent opening leads to real progress should be pursued. A hard freeze is the best way to ensure the talks don’t fall apart early on and determine whether a real disarmament process is possible.


Jon Wolfsthal is Director of the Nuclear Crisis Group in Washington, D.C. and the former Senior Director at the National Security Council for nonproliferation and arms control. He was the US Government on-site monitor in North Korea in 1995-96.

Image: Army.mil/Sgt. Park Youngho, Eighth Army Public Affairs