U.S. President Donald Trump takes a drink of water during a news conference in Singapore. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Trump Should Aim Small on North Korea

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This week’s summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offers an opportunity for the sort of spectacle Trump loves — starring himself as the wizardly negotiator who wins huge concessions that eluded his inept predecessors. He’d be wise to resist the temptation, and to concentrate on progress not theater.  

A real grand bargain with North Korea is, at this point, virtually impossible. It would ask too much of both sides — for North Korea to eliminate its nuclear and long-range missile arsenals and production facilities, which the regime sees as essential for its survival; and for the U.S. to end sanctions and possibly withdraw troops from the Korean Peninsula, which would undermine its alliances and strategic position in Northeast Asia.

Even if such pledges were made, neither country could expect the other to honor them.

The real question is what concrete, achievable steps might be possible. Kim is hoping that Trump wants a deal badly enough to make big concessions, particularly on easing sanctions, in exchange for colorful-but-symbolic gestures. That’s proved a fair bet up to now. True, the North hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile in over a year, but Kim hasn’t had to accept a formal testing ban or any other specific disarmament measure. The North is thought to continue to churn out missiles and bomb-making material.

So Trump needs to concentrate on eking out realistic, verifiable commitments. He could start with the dismantlement of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, an idea that Kim has reportedly raised. The North has used Yongbyon, spread across a large area and several facilities, to reprocess plutonium and enrich uranium for its bombs. Shutting all of it down for good would limit if not end Pyongyang’s ability to add to its nuclear arsenal. The North has let international inspectors into parts of Yongbyon before; this time, they’d have to be granted access to the whole site, including its centrifuge facility, and Kim would have to agree to a short timeline to disable and dismantle the reactor and reprocessing and enrichment facilities.

Trump should also demand a detailed plan of other steps the North will take toward full denuclearization. These should include providing a list of all the North’s nuclear and missile stocks and facilities, which Kim has resisted up to now. A verifiable cap on these arsenals should be imposed. Kim’s “voluntary” freeze of nuclear and missile tests should be laid out in more detail and made permanent. And it’s about time the two sides agreed on exactly what they mean by “denuclearization.”

What the U.S. offers in return should depend on how many of these demands Kim accepts. Granted, some measures would serve U.S. purposes anyway: Expanding cultural, educational and sporting exchanges, and even opening a diplomatic liaison office in Pyongyang, would give Washington a better view of what’s going on in the North. If Kim offers nothing more than superficial concessions, that’s about all he should get.  

Other measures under discussion are riskier. A declaration that the Korean War had officially ended would invite calls to end the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Allowing Seoul to restart some economic projects with the North would revive the flow of hard currency to the regime and increase pressure to lift broader sanctions as well. The U.S. should float such possibilities — but provide them only in exchange for firm, detailed, verifiable actions that reduce the North’s capabilities.

Some prospective giveaways should be off the table entirely. Trump ought to do nothing that would undermine the U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan. The stationing of U.S. troops on the peninsula shouldn’t be up for negotiation, as Trump has hinted in the past it might be. Nor should he accept a deal that reduces the threat to U.S. territory — say, by eliminating Pyongyang’s ICBMs — while leaving Japan and South Korea vulnerable. Finally, Trump should assure Kim that North Korea’s isolation cannot end until it curbs its appalling record on human rights, drug-dealing and cybercrimes

If this limits what’s possible in Hanoi this week, so be it. Progress that’s modest but real is better than bold declarations signifying nothing.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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