One underlying problem is that Kim cannot be certain even about the identity of the U.S. president after January 20, 2021. Therefore, the durability of any agreements reached with the Trump administration in the coming year is open to question. That risk is even greater given the hostility that leading Democrats have exhibited toward Trump’s pursuit of a rapprochement with Pyongyang.
If those problems were not enough to make worthwhile negotiations in 2020 difficult, Washington’s overall negotiating strategy is unrealistic. The core demand of the Trump administration, as was the case with its predecessors since the early 1990s, is that North Korea must agree to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, or CVID. Given how the United States has treated non-nuclear adversaries such as Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria over the past quarter-century, there is almost no chance that Pyongyang will relinquish its small nuclear arsenal or its pursuit of a reliable ballistic missile delivery system. In the view of North Korean leaders, possession of such a deterrent may be the only thing that prevents Washington from pursuing a forcible regime-change strategy, as it did against those other countries
Insisting that North Korea return to nuclear virginity, therefore, is a nonstarter. A more realistic and attainable U.S. policy would be to accept Pyongyang having a small nuclear deterrent, combined with efforts to fully normalize diplomatic and economic relations with that government, despite its odious qualities. Normalization would mean, among other steps, establishing formal diplomatic relations (including the exchange of ambassadors), signing a treaty bringing an official end to the Korean War, the withdrawal of most North Korean as well as U.S. and South Korean troops from areas near the Demilitarized Zone, and the gradual lifting of most U.S. and UN economic sanctions on North Korea.
Unfortunately, there will be fierce opposition in America’s political and policy communities to an accord that leaves Pyongyang in possession of any nuclear weapons. Such opposition is misplaced. As various experts have shown, nuclear weapons may be the ultimate deterrent, but they are not very useful either for intimidation or warfighting—unless a country’s political leadership is willing to commit national and personal suicide. Despite the popular mythology in the West that Kim and the rest of the DPRK’s leadership is “crazy,” there is no credible evidence for that conclusion. North Korean leaders certainly are brutal and ruthless, but their actions are not irrational, much less suicidal.
Kim’s address was hardly an example of cordial diplomacy, but neither was it a fire-breathing, threat-filled diatribe. It epitomized a cautious, hedging strategy, and that’s the best we’re likely to get in the foreseeable future. Washington’s response should consist of steps to revitalize a process of bilateral détente based on more realistic objectives.