North Korean Denuclearization: Lessons From History

June 11, 2018

Editor’s Note: With President Donald Trump in Singapore for the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, it’s worth hearing from the experts about what the past can teach us about negotiating with the Hermit Kingdom. Our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review, has an excellent article by State Department hand Patrick McEachern. Here’s an excerpt. 

“Here we go again.”

“It’s Groundhog Day with North Korea.”

“We’ve seen this script before.”

These sorts of refrains have been common among North Korea watchers — and those who play them on TV — ahead of the summit slated for June 12 in Singapore between North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump. After significant brinkmanship over whether the meeting would take place, the on-again, off-again summit looks likely to be held as originally planned. The United States has engaged North Korea in two major denuclearization processes, not to mention separate inter-Korean and multilateral efforts, over the past quarter-century. All have failed to produce the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization that the United States has sought on the Korean Peninsula. Some skeptical of the bilateral summit charge that this history of failure is likely to repeat itself. Meanwhile, optimists suggest that something new in the upcoming process has opened the possibility of a different outcome.

History can be a useful guide to avoid repeating mistakes, but events are rarely as neat and tidy as a sound bite seems to suggest. The history of nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, as well as multilateral discussions such as the six-party talks, is far more complex than most voices in the media and policy circles acknowledge. This history offers cause for pessimism, optimism, and caution about current prospects for denuclearization.

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Image: Gilad Rom via Wikimedia Commons