As President Donald Trump meets North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un for a historic summit in Singapore, one major issue will be on the agenda: how can Kim be sure he won’t be overthrown if he agrees to give up his country’s nuclear capabilities?
Trump has already said that he is willing to ensure that the leader of the rogue regime remains in power in exchange for the Korean peninsula's complete denuclearization. But it’s unclear what that security guarantee would look like or how the U.S. could prevent regime change in North Korea if it were to come from inside the country. In previous cases, Washington has formed military alliances with key allies in order to provide a guarantee that the U.S. would come to the ally’s assistance if it were attacked.
Currently, however, the U.S. does not have a diplomatic presence in North Korea. Pyongyang also values its sovereignty and is unlikely to feel safer with U.S. troops nearby. In fact, North Korea is actively lobbying for the U.S. to remove its military presence from nearby South Korea, or at the very least to end joint military exercises between South Korea and the U.S.
Instead, some experts have suggested that international peacekeepers or Chinese troops could play a significant role. North and South Korea recently signed a joint statement reaffirming their willingness to pursue peace, and several regional analysts say that the two countries could transform the demilitarization zone between them into a peace zone that would serve as a buffer. International troops and inspectors stationed in the area could then provide guarantees that neither side could launch a surprise attack.
Other experts say that Washington should use the talks with North Korea to sign a non-aggression treaty with Pyongyang.
“A verbal or written security guarantee from the Trump administration stating that the U.S. has no intention of attacking North Korea would probably be a starting point in negotiations, but wouldn't be enough to make Pyongyang feel secure. As part of a 2005 agreement reached during the Six-Party Talks, the U.S. ‘affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.’ This wasn't enough to stop North Korea from walking away from the talks and conducting its first nuclear test a year later,” Daniel Wertz, associate director of the National Committee on North Korea, told Newsweek.
“North Korea might consider a peace treaty or a nonaggression pledge that is ratified by the U.S. Congress to carry more weight than an executive agreement, since Pyongyang is well aware that a future U.S. administration could easily abandon an agreement made by its predecessor,” Wertz added.
The future of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea—and the joint military exercises between Washington and Seoul—will certainly be on the negotiating table. Trump has suggested he might be willing to remove some U.S. troops from the peninsula, while Kim has hinted that he might be willing to accept the presence of U.S. troops in the region if military exercises are scaled back.
Both of these positions open the way for a compromise, but some analysts argue that it’s unlikely the U.S. will be able to offer any guarantees Pyongyang will be satisfied with.
“A peace treaty would be some sort of reassurance, and it’s not clear to me if you look at our track record what a security guarantee from the U.S. is worth? [Libyan leader Muammar] Gadhafi gave up his stuff…with Ukraine we signed a pledge to guarantee their sovereignty, how did that work that?” Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek, referring to previous security guarantees that were unsuccessful.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions here [at the North Korea summit],” Manning added. “So beyond the world’s biggest reality T.V. show, I’m not sure what comes next.”
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