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Strategy, not skepticism, needed ahead of North Korea summit

Pedestrians walk past a banner showing two hands shaking to form the shape of the Korean Peninsula to support the upcoming inter-Korean summit
A banner in Seoul supporting the upcoming inter-Korean summit. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

Critics of the upcoming U.S. summit with North Korea have voiced concerns that Kim Jong-un will never agree to denuclearization or that, if he does, he will renege. Those dubious of hardliners like John Bolton suspect talks are a charade and a prelude to war. These fears are real, but so is the potential for success.

The big picture: Though both the U.S. and North Korea could well adopt poison pills the other would not accept, the two countries do in fact have common ground. The policy community should focus on developing a diplomatic strategy rather than heralding the summit's inevitable failure.

Both countries agree on the premise: denuclearization, applied equally to North and South Korea. Such has been the explicit goal since the joint statement of the six-party talks between Russia, China, Japan, the U.S. and South and North Korea in 2005, and it should remain so today.

Denuclearization would mean that neither North nor South Korea would have nuclear weapons (foreign or domestic) or weapons-grade material. Furthermore, nuclear-weapons states, including the U.S. and China, would commit not to use nuclear weapons in a first strike against either Korea. Once the North verifiably eliminates its nuclear capability, permanent inspection procedures would apply equally throughout the peninsula.

Any agreement would also have to address North Korean and regional security. Here again, the 2005 joint statement provides a blueprint, with stipulations for a formal end to the Korean War, establishment of diplomatic relations and sequenced reduction of economic sanctions.

The bottom line: These issues cannot all be resolved at the summit, but it should be possible to agree on basic principles that allow negotiators to work out the details in subsequent meetings and move closer to achieving peace on the peninsula.

Morton H. Halperin is a senior adviser at the Open Society Foundations and a former Director of Policy Planning at the Department of State.