Stephen Biegun, Special Representative for North Korea
The University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
Weiser Diplomacy Center
September 6, 2019
In June of 2018, the decision of President Trump to meet at a summit in Singapore with Chairman Kim Jung Un of North Korea was truly momentous. At the conclusion of that first ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, they issued a simple, straightforward statement outlining a plan to change the course of events on the Korean Peninsula through the transformation of relations, the establishment of a permanent peace, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And while there is still much work ahead of us if we are to fulfill those commitments, this act of bold leadership and the simple roadmap it produced may well prove to be the key to unlocking the strategic puzzle of the Korean Peninsula that has bedeviled the world since the end of World War II.
Since that historic summit meeting in Singapore, the president has maintained a strong and focused commitment to the search for a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. He refuses to accept that 66 years after the end of fighting in the Korean War we have yet to find a successful path to transforming relations and establishing a permanent peace. But the president has also been clear that doing so will require the daunting task of eliminating the growing threat of weapons of mass destruction on the Korean Peninsula. The president has directed the Secretary of State, myself, and the entire U.S. national security team to spare no effort in our negotiations to fulfill the commitments the two leaders made at Singapore.
We are aware that this diplomatic opening is fragile. We fully understand the consequences if diplomacy fails. And, we are clear eyed about the dangerous reality of ongoing development by North Korea of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them across the region and the world. This is in defiance of international norms. It is in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. And it is in contravention of multiple promises made by North Korea to never possess such weapons.
For us to make progress toward peace and take major steps toward transforming our relationship, North Korea must also be willing to fulfill its commitment to achieve complete denuclearization. North Korea will never be able to realize its full economic potential or enjoy true security and stability if it clings to weapons of mass destruction. The United States and the world will not accept that. And we, and all other countries in the region, need to understand that the outcome of this diplomatic process will have ramifications well beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Last year, shortly after taking on this assignment, I had the rare and special opportunity to sit down with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to discuss the way forward. As he shared his observations and thoughtful advice, one comment made a particularly deep impression upon me. Dr. Kissinger noted that we were charged today with working toward the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. But, he said, if this effort fails, we will be working tomorrow on an Asia-wide nuclear proliferation challenge. It does not require a leap of logic to understand what Dr. Kissinger was predicting.
A North Korea that retains the ability to threaten its neighbors with nuclear weapons risks breaking the international non-proliferation consensus built over 50 years. While a number of countries and economies in Asia have the scientific wherewithal and technical capability to develop nuclear weapons, they have made the judgment that possessing such weapons creates more risk than security for their people. Allies such as Japan and South Korea have forsworn nuclear weapons programs in part because they trust the protection of extended nuclear deterrence that is included in their alliances with the United States. But how long will this conviction hold if such arms are a mere short-range ballistic missile flight away from their territory? At what point will voices in South Korea or Japan, and elsewhere in Asia, begin to ask if they need to reconsider their own nuclear capabilities? And what will this mean for a region whose prosperity and growth has been so inextricably tied to long-term stability and peace?
It is very much in the interests of the United States and every other nation in the region to avoid this eventuality. If we are to escape an outcome that will press nations in the region to consider new, more dangerous strategic choices, we must work together as allies and partners in East Asia to achieve the vision laid out at the Singapore Summit. As always, there are consequences for failure, and I fear Dr. Kissinger is correct that if the international community fails in this undertaking, North Korea will not be the last state in East Asia to acquire nuclear weapons.
At this moment, to achieve further progress, the most important step we can take is for the United States and North Korea to work together to overcome the policies and demonstrations of hostility that compromise the simple ability of our diplomats to talk and to sustain the rhythm of negotiations. If we are to succeed, North Korea must set aside its search for obstacles to negotiations and instead seek the opportunities for engagement while that opportunity lasts. We have made clear to North Korea that we are prepared to engage as soon as we hear from them. We are ready, but we cannot do this by ourselves.
Between the United States and North Korea, there has long been too little communication, too much room for miscalculation and misunderstanding, and almost no room at all for error. Through direct engagement we must create space and momentum for diplomacy. We must set in motion an intensive set of negotiations. Only if we do that will we be able to fulfill the commitments of our leaders and the desires of our respective peoples for peace.
Once we begin intensive negotiations, we can directly discuss actions that each side can take to create more and better choices for our leaders to consider. Following the outline of the joint statement issued last year by President Trump and Chairman Kim at the Singapore Summit, we can construct a set of actions that are undertaken to elevate relations from a place of hostility and distrust toward an agreed end state that fulfills the vision of our two leaders – provided that there is a clear commitment to fulfill all the areas of agreement made by our two leaders in Singapore.
Neither the United States nor North Korea has to accept all the risk of moving forward. There are immediate actions that we can take if negotiations make progress. Judging by the talks President Trump has had with Chairman Kim, and that our team has had over the past year with our North Korean counterparts, it is clear that both sides can quickly agree to significant actions that will declare to our respective peoples—and to the world—that U.S.-North Korea relations have taken an irreversible turn away from conflict. Actions—much more than any words — can infuse this diplomatic opportunity with momentum.
Seventy years of conflict and hostility on the Korean Peninsula —and the orthodoxies and necessities of deterrence to which they gave rise—make a peaceful U.S.-North Korea relationship hard to imagine.
Hard in the way our current strategic and economic relationship with Vietnam was hard to imagine a mere 20 years ago. Hard in the way our alliances with Germany and Japan were unthinkable in the waning days of World War II. Hard in the way the reunification of Germany and a Europe whole and free were difficult to imagine even as the Berlin Wall was falling.
There have been prior iterations of negotiations with North Korea over the past 25 years to slow or reverse the development of weapons of mass destruction, but none have yet succeeded in overcoming the legacy of a brutal war and the decades of hostility that followed. Of course we are mindful that there is no guarantee that our current diplomatic efforts will succeed where others failed, but with the president’s direction and strong support we are committed to try through diplomacy to do more, not less.
Over the past year we have been able to sustain political space and momentum at home with bipartisan agreement that diplomacy remains the best course. Our team has invested significant time and effort in consultations with the Congress, and we continue to draw support from both sides of the aisle to continue to test this opportunity. Beyond our borders, policies on the denuclearization of North Korea stand on a firm foundation of international support, guided by a series of resolutions unanimously supported in United Nations Security Council, and actively supported by allies and partners in Asia, Europe, and around the world.
We are fully committed to bring an end to the vestiges of hostile relations on the Korean Peninsula, find a path to assure the security of both North and South Koreans, to build the trust that is a necessary foundation for a lasting peace, and through this achieve the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery on the Korean Peninsula.
And if we are successful, there is so much potential for opportunity ahead of us. Our two countries—and the Indo-Pacific region as a whole—would greatly benefit from enhanced connectivity through the Korean Peninsula. More open sea lanes and overflights in and around the Peninsula, combined with high-quality infrastructure investment in North Korea, would diversify and shorten transport routes, open new export markets for North Korean goods, and open up vast additional areas for economic development – in North Korea and neighboring countries.
Energy flows in and out of North Korea would lift the North Korean economy and new diversified trading relationships would improve living standards throughout the Peninsula and the region.
In terms of security, lowered tensions will mean that our military forces will no longer need to stand and train perpetually ready to fight a war. They could instead serve and cooperate to build foundations to support a lasting peace.
And if we can forge a sustainable peace—forge the modalities of cooperation—we will reap the mutual rewards that will spring from frank discussion on the many other issues that have divided the United States and North Korea over these many years.
This is President Trump’s vision. And it is a vision he is confident Chairman Kim shares.
When the president took office more than two years ago, North Korea represented the most urgent national security priority waiting on his desk. What has moved the Korean Peninsula off a path toward conflict and on to the path of peace has been the bold leadership of President Trump and Chairman Kim. Whereas the experts counseled incrementalism, the president understood that the situation called for a clear break with the past. We needed to do something different, and something dramatic, to head off conflict.
The president’s decision to hold two summits and seek agreement at the highest levels with the North Korean leader was not—to say the least—the conventional wisdom of the Washington, D.C. foreign policy establishment. The decision two months ago to propose an impromptu meeting with Chairman Kim at Panmunjom Village had no guarantee of success. In fact, Chairman Kim could have rejected the last minute invitation out of hand, but he didn’t. And as a result of each of these engagements between our two leaders, the door to diplomacy has been held open a little longer.
Over the course of this past year the president has made clear to North Korea and to the world that he has made this choice for the United States. He has given our negotiating team clear instructions to deliver on his deep commitment to transforming U.S.-North Korean relations through diplomacy as agreed with Chairman Kim at Singapore. And he has said that he is confident that Chairman Kim will not disappoint him in that regard.
Bringing lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula will ultimately only succeed with the leadership of President Trump and Chairman Kim. Both must be able to see opportunity where others inside their respective systems do not — opportunity that could blossom from the successful transformation of our relations, the establishment of a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. To succeed, both must choose this course, and follow through with actions that will seize that opportunity. The president is fully committed to making significant progress towards these goals in the year ahead and, should Chairman Kim share in President Trump’s commitment to advance the ideas I have laid out today, he will find our team is ready to turn this vision into reality.