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Patricia Kim is the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite President Trump’s threats to destroy North Korea if necessary, and recent steps by Beijing to reduce its trade with Pyongyang, a resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis is nowhere in sight. While no quick fix exists to denuclearize North Korea, negotiating a freeze, and ultimately dismantling its nuclear program, will require all of the major powers in the region to stand together and present the Kim regime with a stark choice—nuclear weapons or regime survival—through both economic pressure and diplomatic assurances. But to rally all of North Korea’s neighbors to present such an ultimatum, the inherent struggle over the regional balance of power that lies at the heart of the current crisis must be addressed first.
President Trump should use his inaugural trip to Asia this month to begin exploring a grand bargain with the major powers of the region—China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia—that outlines mutually acceptable scenarios on the Korean Peninsula, and can serve as the basis for extended diplomatic coordination between the five parties.
The purpose of the grand bargain would be twofold. First, to assure all five parties, especially Beijing, that joining Washington to pressure North Korea, even at the risk of the Kim regime’s collapse, will not sway the regional balance of power in a manner that undercuts any one state’s fundamental interests. And second, to send a message to Pyongyang that it can no longer rely on the strategic gaps between its neighbors to continue its “byungjin” policy of pursuing both nuclear weapons and economic development.
The grand bargain, which could be formalized in a joint statement, should begin with the premise that none of the parties seek North Korea’s collapse, and that all are willing to extend a security guarantee and assist with its integration into the global economy, in conjunction with concrete steps by Pyongyang to freeze and ultimately abandon its nuclear program. But the deal should also include a clear commitment that all five parties will continue to enforce and increase sanctions until North Korea takes such steps.
The grand bargain will also need to address what would happen if the Kim regime were to collapse as an unintended result of the pressure campaign. One reasonable plan is to have the South Korean government take charge of the unification of the Korean Peninsula, with the assistance of U.S. and Chinese troops to secure nuclear material and ensure an orderly transition in the immediate aftermath. The plan should also include a commitment by all parties to assist in the stabilization of a unified and neutral Korea that can enjoy equitable and coordinated relationships with all of the powers in the region.
Striking such a deal will not be easy by any means, and will have to address conflicting interests and mutual skepticism on all sides. First, the United States and South Korea will need to have a serious conversation on whether and how they are prepared to modify their alliance in the case of unification, in order to gain China’s support for a unified Korean Peninsula led by the South Korean government.
President Trump will also have to find a way to persuade the other parties that the U.S. government will stand by the provisions in the deal, despite a poor track record of pursuing regime change and wavering on past commitments like the Iran deal. And President Xi Jinping will also need to assure all parties, especially South Korea, that China would respect the independence of a unified Korean Peninsula, especially one with a modified security relationship with the United States, should such a state arise. Addressing such challenges will be tough to say the least, but not impossible, with creative and persistent diplomacy.
The time is ripe to strike a grand bargain. Asian leaders and citizens are increasingly worried about the prospects for war in their neighborhood, and would welcome a deal that lays out a diplomatic path forward with clear ground rules on the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps most significantly, Beijing, which has traditionally sheltered Pyongyang, is increasingly frustrated with its wayward ally, and faces growing calls by Chinese political elites to reevaluate whether its North Korea policy is still in China’s best interests. And now that President Xi has emerged an even stronger leader after the Nineteenth Party Congress, he should have more political space to partake in grand deal-making. Finally, it is imperative to lock down Russia into an agreement before it expands its minor spoiler-role of helping North Korea flout sanctions.
President Trump takes pride in his ability to make deals, and he should use his upcoming trip to lay the groundwork to strike a grand bargain with his regional partners. While any deal is unlikely to result in immediate denuclearization, an extended campaign of economic pressure and clear diplomatic assurances could one day lead to wariness and changed minds among North Korea’s elites, who now have more access to outside information and creature comforts than ever before. And if the Kim regime collapses before such a point, a grand bargain will serve as a valuable blueprint for the way forward on the Korean Peninsula.