Rex Tillerson’s latest message to North Korea confirmed once again that the Trump administration doesn’t know the first thing about diplomacy:
“North Korea must earn its way back to the table,” he said. “The pressure campaign must, and will, continue until denuclearization is achieved. We will, in the meantime, keep our channels of communication open.”
If the U.S. insists that the pressure campaign will continue until denuclearization is achieved, North Korea has no incentive to make any effort to make its way back to the negotiating table. When U.S. policy defines North Korea’s capitulation as the only acceptable outcome, the North Korean government isn’t going to be interested in talks and will keep responding negatively to Washington’s pressure tactics. It makes no sense for the U.S. to continue such a fruitless policy. If Washington wants to see a freeze of North Korean weapons and missile tests, our government and our allies have to be willing to exchange something for that concession. If the U.S. isn’t willing to offer anything, it cannot reasonably expect to get anything that it wants from a government as obstreperous and defiant as North Korea’s. The best way to get a deal with any other state is to be willing to give them something that they want and to give them a way out of a stand-off that allows them to save face, and right now the U.S. is offering North Korea nothing except to give up everything in the most humiliating fashion. This approach is practically begging for resistance and more provocative behavior, and it should come as no surprise when that is what happens.
It does the U.S. and our allies no good to raise additional barriers to getting North Korea to the negotiating table, since that is the only place where the U.S. and our allies have been able to extract meaningful concessions from them. Refusing to talk to North Korea doesn’t punish Kim and his regime, but it does deprive us of the best means available to reduce tensions and find some compromise that addresses the security concerns of our allies while giving North Korea reassurances that the regime’s survival is not threatened. Unfortunately, a policy defined in terms of “maximum pressure” and denuclearization does not allow for the compromise needed to make progress in negotiations. Until the Trump administration is prepared to acknowledge that its North Korea policy has already failed on its own terms, there won’t be much for the U.S. and North Korea to talk about.