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The Case for Talking to North Korea

Last week, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul made a critical point [1] that can’t be repeated often enough. The North Korean regime poses a national security threat to the United States from its nuclear and offensive missile capability of increasing number, power, and range [2].

The Obama administration, as Rep. McCaul rightly stated in War on the Rocks, paid insufficient attention to the North Korean problem. Indeed, the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience”—slapping round upon round of economic sanctions on Pyongyang and waiting for Kim Jong-un to make the first overture towards denuclearization or to collapse outright—has been an abysmal failure.

Ironically, however, what Rep. McCaul essentially proposed in his piece is a tougher version of President Obama’s strategic patience policy: add even stronger economic restrictions on the regime’s finances; sanction Chinese companies doing business with the North Korean government; boost America’s anti-missile defenses in the Asia-Pacific; re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism; and only consider nuclear negotiations when Kim Jong-un’s economy is so squeezed for cash he has no choice but to beg for a reprieve. Diplomacy, in other words, isn’t much of a factor in McCaul’s framework.

Diplomacy is the only option the United States and its allies have to resolve the North Korean problem without risking a regional armed conflict—and past negotiations with Pyongyang have actually yielded positive strategic outcomes for Washington.  


Take the 1994 Agreed Framework [3]. The deal was designed to suspend, and then scrap, North Korea’s plutonium program permanently in exchange for the delivery of light water reactors, heavy fuel oil, and the prospects of a normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations down the line.

Eight years later, the deal collapsed after U.S. intelligence officials caught North Korea producing a uranium enrichment program—an event that critics of negotiations with the North frequently use as proof that there is no point in the United States sitting down with the Kims.  

What critics conveniently refuse to acknowledge is the Agreed Framework, however flawed it may be, had a positive impact for the United States. North Korea’s plutonium program, one that was becoming such a concern for Washington that the Clinton administration was seriously considering an air strike on its facility, was for eight years put under IAEA supervision. Before the Agreed Framework was put in place, the U.S. intelligence community estimated North Korea would be able to produce enough plutonium for approximately 100 nuclear weapons. Instead, when the Agreed Framework collapsed, the North’s plutonium program was nowhere near those assessments—diplomacy had in fact prohibited Pyongyang’s ability to cheat on its plutonium program.

In the words of Joel Wit, who helped negotiate and then implement the accord, Kim Jong-il’s plutonium reactor was relegated from a nuclear proliferation danger to “a pile of unsalvageable junk [4].”

The point here is not to defend the work of former Clinton administration officials, but rather to show that diplomacy with North Korea—while certainly tough, frustrating, and by no means guaranteed to work—has proven successful in the past.

The question Rep. McCaul and his colleagues in Congress should be asking is not how the U.S. can best continue a status-quo that has proven to be an unmitigated failure, but whether it may be time to embrace the kind of out-of-the-box thinking required to mitigate this seemingly intractable and unsolvable problem.

Let’s be perfectly clear: for the Trump administration, negotiations with North Korea would be incredibly difficult politically, just as they were for Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway will vigorously oppose any plans to dangle carrots in front of Kim Jong-un’s face. Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, is a highly brutal Machiavellian leader who will do anything to snuff out the slightest opposition to his power—even poisoning his own half-brother with a chemical weapon in a crowded Malaysian airport.

The United States doesn’t have the luxury of negotiating with people it likes all of the time. The world is full of unsavory autocrats and dictators who kill their own people, conduct human rights abuses regularly, jail and torture their political opponents, and conduct military exercises the international community considers provocative and belligerent.

We can either accept it and attempt to get something historic done, or we can bury our hands in the sand and wait for a more utopian world to emerge before leading.   

U.S. history rewards American presidents who choose to be daring and bold.  President Richard Nixon didn’t wait for Chairman Mao to become a committed democrat before flying into China and beginning the process of U.S.-Chinese normalization. President Ronald Reagan didn’t wait for the Soviet Union’s complete collapse before striking an arms control agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, Reagan chose to take a risk and talk to the Russian leader despite political opposition he received from some within his own party.

None of those historic achievements would have occurred if they decided to do what was politically popular.

The current U.S. strategy isn’t working, and it hasn’t worked for a very long time. Doubling down on the sanctions route and treating negotiations as naïve, however, will only provide Pyongyang with an excuse to continue building up its stockpile of nukes and increasing the range and lethality of its missile fleet. At some point in time, U.S. policymakers will need to go back to the very same options that President Clinton and Defense Secretary William Perry were forced to confront: a military strike on Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction facilities. The results of military action today, though, would be more bloody and horrific for the region than they would have been in 1994.

Tougher economic sanctions may certainly be appropriate, but they should come after Kim Jong-un declines to negotiate seriously or take a reasonable deal—not before discussions have even started. The U.S., along with allies in South Korea and Japan, must use every diplomatic cudgel in our arsenals before considering sharper tools.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "The Case for Talking to North Korea"

#1 Comment By Kurt Gayle On March 17, 2017 @ 8:22 am

5 stars for Daniel R. DePetris:

“Diplomacy is the only option the United States and its allies have to resolve the North Korean problem without risking a regional armed conflict—and past negotiations with Pyongyang have actually yielded positive strategic outcomes for Washington.”

#2 Comment By collin On March 17, 2017 @ 9:54 am

We need another round of Sanctions on North Korea! How many have we had the last 25 years? Sure, I think it great that we send Tillerson to negotiate directly with North Korea. That would be a better approach than the past 3 administrations. However my concerns are:

1) I don’t trust Trump with negotiations here. He only seems to like leaders that suck up to him.
2) I don’t see how Trump administration is going to work with China any better than Obama or Bush. Frankly, I think the Chinese government thinks Trump is easy prey.
3) I don’t see allowing nukes for SK and Japan as a way of negotiating with NK or China here.
4) I getting a bad feeling that Trump NK is following the Bush’s grand strategy for the Middle East. I believed a big portion of Bush’s mistake with Iraq was he wanted a grand victory in Iraq to lead the Middle East. And Trump believes big moves will lead to good outcomes here.

#3 Comment By James On March 17, 2017 @ 10:26 am

The caption under the headline reads: “All diplomatic options should be exhausted before considering the use of military force.”

Have we reached such a place that we must be reminded of something so blazingly obvious? Hubris and foolishness have long been follies of American administrations, both Democratic and Republican, but we seem headed very rapidly into the territory of “to hell in a handbasket.”

#4 Comment By victory over eurasia On March 17, 2017 @ 11:17 am

what is the conceivable reason for the US to act militarily against NK?

The idea that NK is insane and will act irrationally is insanity on our part. They know that any strike against the US will result in their annihilation.

This thinking on our part is the same thinking that may lead us to war w Iran…….

It’s surely a regional problem for China. The idea of the US acting unilaterally against the country bordering mainland China is utterly insane, but I suppose it helps the orange buffoon to feel tough, and takes the usual bludgeon to diplomatic problems.

#5 Comment By Howard On March 17, 2017 @ 11:19 am

Harsh words and economic penalties are both part of diplomacy. Diplomacy does not mean simply holding hands and singing kumbaya. In any event, we have to be prepared for the likelihood that no words, harsh or gentle, are likely change N. Korea from its current path. If we give them words, we can expect words in return, at best coupled with a more hidden development of actual offensive capability. What we need is a change in mindset in Pyongyang, and although others may be able to influence such a change, we probably cannot.

#6 Comment By Jack On March 17, 2017 @ 2:00 pm

The problem with North Korea can’t be solved without China.

#7 Comment By Rossbach On March 17, 2017 @ 8:55 pm

What is missing in this discussion is an understanding of why there is tension between our country and North Korea. It is because we have been meddling on the Korean peninsula for over 70 years. If we didn’t have military forces in that area, what are the chances that North Korea would seek a confrontation with the US?

#8 Comment By Mark Thomason On March 18, 2017 @ 4:57 am

Diplomacy with whom?

There is no point in talking to Kim. That is not entirely Kim’s fault, since Bush repudiated Clinton’s deal with Kim. But Kim is a big part of the problem.

Diplomacy must be with those who can affect NK. That means mostly China, partly Russia too. Nobody else is willing and able to keep NK alive as a nation-state.

So talk to those with power, who can be reasonable. That does mean however that we must be willing to deal, not just expect to give them orders.

#9 Comment By The Autist Formerly Known as “KD” On March 18, 2017 @ 8:31 am

The real question is finding the right diplomatic quid pro quo that appeases China without threatening our regional allies, and then flattening North Korea and reunifying the Nation.

The North Korean regime has to go, it has become an intolerable menace, and China has not been effective in reining them in.

Unlike Iraq, etc., there is a competent government in South Korea more than capable of filling the power vacuum left by the collapse of North Korea.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 18, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

“The problem with North Korea can’t be solved without China.”

Hmmmmmm . . .,

Not necessarily. North Korea is not a Chinese puppet. I would contend that treating North Korea as an independent state is key. That China may be their ally, but N. Korea has interests and goals unique to her that could be well served by better relations with with the US and others.

#11 Comment By John On March 18, 2017 @ 10:08 pm

Well said Daniel! Your article is one of the best I ever read. (A+)
Perhaps, the new administration should hire you to work on Korea issue.

Just add one more fact to the past history:
North Korea has been under U.S. sanctions from 1950,
from the outbreak of the Korean War!

It is about time to end that crazy war and sanctions now.

#12 Comment By HeavyB On March 19, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

North Korea will not abandon its nuclear program, and actively seeks to become a major nuclear power that can severely damage the US at a whim. We should look at their people as hostages that North Korea itself does not really care that much about.

It is absurd to treat this as a regional issue, because the NK must increasingly rely on extortion to survive, which ineluctably means extortion of our regional allies. And do we really want a regional nuclear arms race in the region? Nuclear war impacts us all, as just the leak from Russian and Japanese reactors threatened the world’s biome.

It is fine to pursue diplomatic means, as long as we have an robust anti-ballistic deterrent as effective as Israel’s Iron Dome appears to be. I have read that our current system is unacceptably “porous”. And we must deploy it for our allies and even others in the region.

That might be the diplomatic stick that moves positive Chinese involvement: a deployment that renders their nuclear stockpile as ineffective as well, while drawing us closer to our own allies.

But the goal should not stop until absolute disarmament and a decommissioned program, because these people are not above suitcase bombs, etc. To do so, we must be willing to make entertainment of such ambitions far more humiliating than their apparent prestige factor — and humiliating in prospect for the Chinese themselves.

#13 Comment By James Drouin On March 20, 2017 @ 9:10 am

“The Case for Talking to North Korea”

Riiiiight … so all the “Talking to North Korea” for the past SEVENTY YEARS was just in the wrong language???

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 20, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

“Riiiiight … so all the “Talking to North Korea” for the past SEVENTY YEARS was just in the wrong language . . .”

Essentially that is correct.

Wrong language. Wrong intent. Wrong tone. Wrong interpretations. Wrong – haphazard nonverbals.

That’s a very good way to look at it.