Despite more tough talk from the U.S. and allies, North Korea seems dead set on more missile tests and its sixth underground nuclear test very soon, the latest among several in recent months. Problem is, the U.S. will have to talk with Pyongyang, no matter how crazy the White House thinks Kim Jong-un is. What other options are there?
Certainly not a military strike. No one wants that. Not China, which has long feared a refugee crisis flooding its borders if North Korea’s leadership collapses. And certainly not South Korea, which would suffer the most during any conflict between the North and the U.S.
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill said in a radio interview on Sunday that there are no good military options, according to The Hill:
“There is no question North Korea’s threat is growing, but they’ve been a threat for some 20 years,” he said. “In the last few years, North Korea’s threat has really grown ... now we are seeing them modernize their missile arsenal such that it’s quite likely in the near future ... North Korea will have a deliverable nuclear weapon. And then the question is, what are we all going to do about that?”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s hawkish rhetoric of pre-emptive action against Pyongyang actions certainly isn’t the answer. Such a bold move will only embolden its leadership to respond with more missile tests—troubled as they often are. Or worse, an attack against South Korea. And no one wants an armed conflict, if it can be avoided.
One of the problems with analyzing North Korea are the knee-jerk impulses to assign the label of “crazy” or unstable to its leadership. In reality, we don’t really know a lot about them. Several North Korea experts told The Washington Post as much:
“North Korea has consistently been treated like a joke, but now the joke has nuclear weapons,” said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. “If you deem Kim Jong Un to be irrational, then you’re implicitly underestimating him.”
Another expert said there may be a method to Kim’s madness:
“He has reasons to be afraid of conspiracies in the top levels of his government, especially in the military and secret police,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar of North Korea who once studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. “You can buy these people off, but they can still betray you. You have to terrify them, and that’s what he’s doing.”
That doesn’t mean Kim’s dictatorial behavior against his own people, or damn near weekly ballistic missile tests, aren’t of concern. Of course they are. But writing Pyongyang off as a Hermit State that cannot be bargained with is short-sighted. Infuriating as it may be with this belligerent country, the best path may be negotiation.
Jacob Stokes and Alexander Sullivan, both North Korea experts, wrote in Lawfare that America can take the lead in brokering a peaceful deal with Pyongyang. Relying on China to do so, Stokes and Sullivan said, may not be a good idea because Beijing is content with the shaky status quo.
If China does take even a remotely hawkish turn towards North Korea, its leadership could very well aim its missiles at them. As The Diplomat notes, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program historically hasn’t negatively impacted its relations with China. Understandably, Beijing would not want to rock the boat, even if they may believe North Korea functions as a feudal state.
That said, sitting down with the North Koreans only works if you believe they have legitimate fears that must be honored. To be sure, as Stokes and Sullivan wrote, such talks won’t be easy. However, there are no other options left. Their proposal of how such a negotiation would look buffers regional security, while opening an dialogue with North Korea:
The alternative—a road to war with few off-ramps—is much worse. Policymakers should consider alternative negotiating forums and structures in the hopes of avoiding the familiar dynamics that have failed in the past.
One idea would be to repurpose the P5+1 format (United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) that succeeded for the Iran talks. Folding in non-regional interlocutors that enjoy more distance from the issues and thus can claim some degree of independence could help; those powers also have a demonstrated preference for diplomatic outcomes. And the P5+1 parties have both experience negotiating together and depth on nuclear issues and verification challenges.
Excluding Japan and the ROK from talks might seem strange, but it would mirror the way Israel and Saudi Arabia were left out of the talks with Iran. The format helped keep the talks focused narrowly on nuclear issues rather than trying to fix every regional and historical disagreement with Tehran at once. The narrower scope made an agreement possible. Washington should simultaneously ramp-up security cooperation and provide a constant stream of briefings to Tokyo and Seoul to ease concerns they may have, as were provided to Tel Aviv and Riyadh in the Iran context. A revival of the P5+1 structure is by no means flawless or the only option, but it provides an example of another way to consider the problem of diplomacy with the Kim regime.
This plan makes perfect sense for several reasons. One, the aim is to address the singular issue of nuclear proliferation. That, and only that, should be the issue during any initial talks. Addressing Japan and South Korea’s concerns at the same time will only muddle talks and keep participants bogged down in regional grievances that will distract from the main objective: convincing the north to denuclearize.
Talks have worked in the past. As I wrote recently, a framework brokered in 1994 for North Korea to freeze its nuclear program fell through because the GOP-led Congress at the time refused to fund the proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors Washington was supposed to give Pyongyang in exchange. And former President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” pronouncement didn’t help, either.
There is a history of peace talks actually working. Why can’t that route work again? And, better yet, follow through on our end of the bargain?
It all comes down to which side—and what people on those sides—are willing to swallow their pride for the greater good. It is nearly impossible to see President Donald Trump display such maturity, given his impulse to tweet his displeasures. But the realities on the ground clearly indicate that Trump has no real military option against North Korea. Instead, he could show off his supposed dealmaking credentials by crafting an arrangement that actually does right for global security.
Either this administration has to accept that and talk to Kim Jong-un, or continue down a tic-for-tac road where Pyongyang responds to instigation with a missile test that further destabilizes the region—or puts our allies in the region at risk.