Since the breakdown of U.S.-DPRK summit talks in Hanoi, there has been enough information to conclude the cause of the summit failure and to pin down where the positions of both sides are today on denuclearization.
The North blamed Trump's advisers for the failure, especially John Bolton, U.S. national security adviser, who said the accusation was "inaccurate". It's not clear who it was ― secretary of state Mike Pompeo or Bolton or both ― that persuaded Trump, or Trump himself decided, to walk away from the talks.
The Trump administration rejects any incremental step-by-step approach espoused by North Korea. Washington favors an immediate complete denuclearization up front, ratcheting up the sanctions, hoping that the pressure will force the North to make more concessions.
It is unknowable how soon the toughening sanctions will render an unbearable tipping point of economic hardship for the North forcing them to give up their self-reliant economic struggle and surrender their weapons of mass destruction. The regime has survived the sanctions so far and will continue to exploit the loopholes of the sanctions.
The premise of denuclearization first before lifting sanctions will never be acceptable to the North. This playbook of quick denuclearization preferred by Bolton and other hardliners is likely to fail, given the lessons the North Koreans learned from the demises of Muammar Gaddafi who gave up a nuclear weapons program and Saddam Hussein who never even had any nuclear weapons.
A comprehensive package deal may not be a bad idea if it consists of all the requirements of a clearly defined denuclearization and if its implementation is phased over a period of time through reciprocal measures. The U.S. demand for North Korea's unilateral disarmament will not succeed if Washington only keeps offering Pyongyang no sanction relief but only the concept of a bright future of North Korea.
This column suggests a proposal for a five-year, five-phase process of denuclearization, which incorporates the juxtaposed approaches advocated by the two sides. A compromise between an all-in-one deal and an incremental approach could be a fair deal, as long as it is designed to move toward the ultimate goal of complete, verified denuclearization.
In the first year, say before the end of 2019, the U.S. and North Korea agree on a five-year denuclearization plan as a comprehensive package deal that will be carried out in "synchronized phases" over the next five years. At the outset, a clear definition of denuclearization should be understood and accepted by both, if it has not been yet. A written commitment to a permanent moratorium on nuclear and missile tests should also be weaved in an initial agreement.
The five-year period falls within a second term of the Trump presidency, a timeline Trump can accept as he speaks as if his second term has been guaranteed.
Also, in the first year, the North undertakes verified dismantlement of its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, finishes the dismantlement of the Dongchang-ri missile site, and invites experts to verify the destruction of its only nuclear test site.
As a corresponding measure, Washington signs an end-of-war declaration, undertakes talks on a peace regime, waves inter-Korean economic projects from the sanctions, and offers a 20 percent curtailment of the sanctions in monetary terms impacting the North Korean economy.
In the second year, North Korea announces a moratorium on all nuclear weapons and missile production activities on undeclared sites, and undertakes verified dismantlement of these production facilities.
In return for these actions, the U.S. then lifts another 20 percent of the sanctions and moves forward on peace talks.
In the third year, the North declares the size of its nuclear arsenal including fissile materials and reduces it by 50 percent with a pledge of non-proliferation. The U.S. lifts another 20 percent of the sanctions, encouraging a people-to-people program, making progress on peace talks towards a peace regime and normalization.
In the fourth year, the North files a declaration of its stockpile of mid and long-range missiles as well as chemical and biological weapons. It undertakes and completes the actual dismantlement and disposition of these weapons. The U.S. lifts an additional 20 percent of the sanctions and establishes an exchange of liaison offices in each other's capitals as a prelude to normalization.
In the fifth year, the final dismantlement and disposition of the remaining nuclear weapons is carried out. The U.S. lifts the remaining 20 percent of the sanctions, signs a peace treaty and normalizes relations with North Korea.
Each phase will require verification and a snap-back clause for re-imposing sanctions should the North fail to comply with its obligations.
This proposal provides a rough idea that can be further refined and built on.
Tong Kim (email@example.com) is a Washington correspondent and columnist for The Korea Times. He is also a fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies.