By Phillip Orchard

Predictably, last week’s Singapore summit was long on pomp and short on substance. The summit was rushed, leaving insufficient time to hammer out anything more than a symbolic statement in which Pyongyang committed to even less than it did in talks with the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in 1993, 1994 and 2005. More important, neither North Korea nor the U.S. was prepared to make any meaningful concessions on their red lines anyway. It’s doubtful that the U.S. will have the leverage to force the North to agree to a formal deal on complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament anytime soon.

However, the outlines of a tacit deal on the size and shape of the North’s nuclear and missile arsenals are beginning to take shape. In fact, the bulk of such an arrangement might already be in place. And it could have considerably more staying power than the meatier deals with North Korea that were repeatedly inked and scrapped in the past.

Still Miles Apart

Ahead of the summit, to avoid backing itself into an untenable political position that would bolster Pyongyang’s negotiating position, the White House began lowering expectations for the talks. Since then, the Trump administration has been referring to it as merely the first step in a long process toward denuclearization.

This week, the U.S. took the next step by announcing the suspension of annual major joint military exercises with South Korea, with the stipulation that they will resume if the North bails on its commitments, though it’s still unclear what steps the U.S. expects to see. Whether or not the North is serious about giving up its nukes, we would expect a series of reciprocal good faith measures like Washington’s freeze on drills, Pyongyang’s freeze on missile and nuclear tests, dismantlement of test facilities and so forth. In any standoff with stakes this high, either side would need to move extremely cautiously to avoid getting played by the other, meaning this phase could easily take years.

But to demonstrate that it is indeed serious about denuclearization, the North would eventually need to take a step that can’t be quickly reversed. Test freezes can end with the flick of a match, and test facilities can be rebuilt (for missile tests, very quickly) – as was the nuclear cooling tower the North blew up in 2008 in exchange for concessions from the United States. Denuclearization will remain notional until the North concedes, at minimum, something on par with what Iran did in 2015, eliminating part of its stockpile of fissile material and giving inspectors the near-unfettered access needed to detect new weapons-grade enrichment.

The problem for the U.S. is the North has yet to express a willingness to hand over its nukes, particularly within the 2.5-year timeline laid out by the White House. In Pyongyang’s view, denuclearization means effectively the same thing as what the U.S. agreed to in 1968 when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires nuclear states to pursue disarmament at some point in a utopian future. And unless the U.S. is willing to go to war over the issue, there’s little reason to think that the North will back down. No U.S. guarantee can replace the sense of security that nukes give the North. China is unwilling to do what it would take to bring the North to its knees on Washington’s behalf. Ultimately, the North just isn’t important enough for the U.S. to go all in to disarm it.

Without movement on either of the two variables that matter most in the standoff – the North’s willingness to hand over its hard-won nukes, or the willingness of the U.S. or another power to try to take them by force – the center of gravity will shift to secondary aims. The diplomatic process will focus on servicing respective political needs, managing the North’s behavior as a nuclear power, and jockeying for regional influence as East Asia comes to terms with its new reality.

Living Without a Resolution

In this environment, the path of least resistance for both sides will be to accept that an indefinite “freeze for freeze” may be all that’s obtainable.

The U.S. can live with this arrangement if it thinks it’s stopping the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program short of being able to strike the U.S. mainland with any sense of reliability. In other words, it could stomach a nuclear North for some of the same reasons it’s been able to tolerate a nuclear Pakistan: Islamabad doesn’t have the missile technology needed to strike the U.S., and disarming the country would require an exceedingly costly war. Politically, the Trump administration will want to show that it has, in fact, brought the North to heel, but this could conceivably be managed with occasional, even if symbolic, concessions by Pyongyang that sustain a sense of momentum toward denuclearization.

The North can live with this if it thinks the arrangement forestalls a U.S. attack in perpetuity, opens the door to sanctions relief, and undermines the ability of the U.S. and South Korea to oust the regime by force. It thinks the Trump administration now has a political imperative to stick with the diplomatic process. It already has a large enough nuclear arsenal to pose a deterrent, even if the lack of future testing may prevent it from obtaining larger-yield hydrogen bombs. And though its ICBM remain unproven, U.S. assets and allies are well within range of its more proven missiles, and its ICBMs – even if lacking proven re-entry and targeting technology – can at least fly far enough to theoretically put the U.S. within reach, potentially giving Washington still greater pause before attacking. More than anything, it effectively cements the North’s nuclear status, allowing Pyongyang to begin its pivot to economic development.

South Korea can live with this arrangement because it forestalls a war that would put Seoul at risk of annihilation and creates space for it to pursue its own, more substantive rapprochement with Pyongyang in a less tense environment. Reports this week that Pyongyang and Seoul may open talks on moving artillery back from the demilitarized zone suggest that the North now feels secure enough to join the South on the risky road to reunification, even if both sides will proceed forward at a glacial pace.

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China, of course, has been proposing freeze for freeze for years. It can live with this because it avoids a war that would destabilize northeastern China and potentially put U.S. troops back on the Yalu River. Moreover, Beijing would be all too happy to see a deal that secures the U.S. mainland from the North’s nukes, while leaving Japan and South Korea at risk, helping to unravel the U.S. alliance structure in Northeast Asia. China doesn’t want to see a unified Korean Peninsula, but it thinks this dream won’t become reality for decades, if ever, and has ample ability to influence intra-Korean relations going forward. It would certainly trade unification for an expulsion of U.S. troops on the peninsula. Japan, meanwhile, will loathe this deal, but it’s simply not in a position to do much about it.

This scenario is by no means guaranteed to play out, and there are myriad complications that could unravel the freeze for freeze. Seoul could get nervous about the erosion of military readiness, and instability in Pyongyang that empowers hard-liners keen to complete the ICBM program is always a risk. Perhaps most important, the North will hold quite a bit of leverage over the U.S. going forward, especially as an embattled and distracted Trump administration looks for signature foreign policy achievements to tout in its pursuit of re-election. In other words, the threat of a missile test at the height of campaign season will be an invaluable bargaining chip. China, which holds the key to sanctions relief, will certainly want the North to press this advantage to push U.S. forces off the peninsula altogether. Given how much Trump sees alliances as a waste of U.S. resources, he just might be inclined to concede.

But the correlation of forces and prevailing political realities will continue to make a more decisive resolution to the standoff elusive. Geopolitics rarely writes tidy denouements.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.