Trump Administration officials have made a rather public split with past efforts at diplomacy with North Korea. Yet they have continued to insist they intend to exhaust all possible options—including diplomatic ones—before taking some action to “solve” North Korea militarily. What sort of diplomatic approach is this?
No approach at all. In reality, what the U.S. calls “diplomacy” in this case is contrary to the goals that underpin sincere diplomatic endeavors. Instead, they are carried out half-heartedly, with an explicit eye toward failure. This allows officials to claim they tried all options before taking the aggressive approach that they often freely admit will be a disastrous result.
This tactic is not unique in U.S. foreign policy, but evinced most plainly in the approach to North Korea since President Trump took office. Diplomacy was very quickly scrapped as the old, failed approach of the past, as officials began pushing for new sanctions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently described the U.S. strategy as “carefully timed” threats, with punitive measures escalating until North Korea capitulates. Most of the administration seems to already recognize that won’t actually happen, instead talking about the possibility of preemptive military action. The top American general in Korea insisted just days ago that the U.S. is “ready” for such an attack, and that it is only America’s choice that has kept the war from being launched already. Needless to say, this is fueling concern around the region.
There have long been two conflicting approaches to North Korea. There is the one described by Tillerson, in which the U.S. hopes to eventually buffalo the belligerent regime into a behavior change. By contrast, the second approach seeks to defuse tensions through diplomatic engagement, aiming to prevent direct conflict while creating an environment where they can iron out the biggest points of disagreement.
The idea of diplomatic engagement rests heavily on the idea of compromise, giving something to the other side and getting something in return. Of course, the main priorities of the U.S. are no mystery in this regard, wanting North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program and to stop researching missiles of the sort that might someday have the range to hit the American mainland. Regime change and reunification can also be said to be U.S. goals of a sort, but they are clearly lower priorities, mostly reflective of the goals of allied South Korea.
The big obstacle to diplomacy is not a lack of clarity on what the U.S. would hope to accomplish, but rather the unwillingness to make any concessions to achieve that. North Korea’s main goals are similarly no mystery: They want a formal peace agreement to end the 1950 Korean War, and an end to annual military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, which focus heavily on planning for an all-out war against North Korea. This is a particularly high priority, since North Korea has the sense that such a U.S. attack may be imminent. It’s not surprising, given what U.S. officials have been saying.
Despite President Trump couching his approach as a break from a failed policy, America hasn’t really had more than a single toe in the diplomatic waters for quite some time. U.S. administrations have repeatedly ruled out discussing peace agreements, and never considered dialing back the annual war games.
This policy of being officially in the market for a diplomatic resolution—but not willing to come to the table to discuss one—is underpinned by the assumption that as the threats and sanctions grow, ultimately the North Koreans will capitulate on the key issues. This was as true in President Obama’s and President Bush’s time in office; even if Trump’s threats are a lot more frequent and bellicose, little has really changed.
China and South Korea both favor the diplomatic approach, and both have been pushing the Trump Administration to consider serious proposals for a broad deal. While there are several variations, at the core of the proposal involves North Korea totally freezing both their nuclear and missile programs, the U.S. halting wargames, and reducing the American military footprint on the Korean Peninsula.
It’s not a bad deal, and gives the U.S. what it wants. That South Korea is backing the deal is particularly significant, showing that they’re willing to give up the annual war exercise, and see some of the U.S. troops withdraw from their territory, in return for these concessions. The White House is not only sour on the specifics of the idea, but is rejecting such proposals out of hand, insisting they don’t want to make any deals that involve lifting any economic or military pressure on North Korea.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same narrative was popular among opponents of the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. Opponents were convinced that the nuclear deal was only on offer because of the years of sanctions and military threats that came before, and were loathe to give up that perceived advantage.
Yet in both the cases of Iran and North Korea, this diplomatic advantage, whether real or imagined, becomes totally pointless if we’re never willing to make the deal.
This is a serious problem with abandoning actual diplomacy as a possible approach. Sanctions and threats, in the absence of a diplomatic goal, lack any peaceful endgame. Unilateral capitulation is a pipe dream. With no possibility of a deal being reached, hostilities can only escalate, leading to decades of cold war or, even worse, outright war.
With North Korea, most top administration officials agree that outright war is an undesirable result, with Defense Secretary James Mattis describing it as “a war we don’t want.” Yet in rejecting diplomatic deals as they become available, the U.S. increasingly gives the appearance that peace with North Korea is also a result we don’t want.
After generations of rising tensions, North Korea is clearly interested in getting to the negotiating table, and has made it apparent they are treating the big issues, like the nuclear program and the missiles, as negotiable points. They are also making clear in these proposals that their primary goals are just moves by the U.S. demonstrating that an American invasion is not in the offing.
Rejecting the deal out of hand should at this point be unfathomable for the U.S., since Mattis has made clear we don’t want the war in the first place. Even the illusion of wanting a war would not longer be a valuable pretense if North Korea makes these concessions. Diplomacy—actual, proper diplomacy—is in everyone’s best interest, and the only question is how long it will take the administration to figure that out.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Daily Caller, the American Conservative, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.