Efforts to convince the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) to abandon its nuclear-weapon aspirations and programs have been stuck in a wash-rinse-repeat cycle going on three decades. Carefully negotiated incremental steps and expert-led processes failed to survive the inevitable political hurdles, technical setbacks, and mutual recriminations that beset the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2005–2008 Six Party Talks, and even the short-lived 2012 “Leap Day Deal”. Six DPRK nuclear explosive tests and multiple launches of long-range ballistic missiles are proof positive that a new method, based on a different logic, is needed to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and, beyond that creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia (NEANWFZ).
The remarkable June 2018 Singapore Summit between Chairman Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump seemed to herald just such a needed new approach. The summit affirmed the prospect that direct, leader-to-leader negotiation between the DPRK and the United States could break apart the centripetal forces binding the cycle of failed nuclear diplomacy. The two leaders agreed, in essence, to subvert the old logic, which cast peace as a function of North Korea’s nuclear dismantlement. The Singapore Summit changed the math: the creation of a “lasting and stable peace regime” could be solved simultaneously with the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.1 This shift to focus on peace and normalization of relations among the combatants of the 70 years past Korean War implicitly recognizes that DPRK leaders are unlikely to relinquish nuclear weapons unless and until they achieve regime security.
Lamentably, in the months following the Singapore summit, despite additional high-level summitry, Washington and Pyongyang struggled to translate this new logic into sustained concrete action. As such, it is yet to be demonstrated that the new, “simultaneous equations” model can be more successful in moving the Korean Peninsula toward denuclearization than past approaches. Even so, pending diplomatic progress, it is worth examining in more detail the constituent security transformations that would be required to make the new approach workable.
1 Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit, 12 June 2018,