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Learning to Coexist Peacefully With North Korea

Over the last quarter century, U.S. policy towards North Korea has evolved into demanding Pyongyang’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Under this approach, as long as the Kim regime is unwilling to part ways with its nuclear deterrent, a normal relationship between Washington and Pyongyang will have to wait.

This old denuclearization-for-peace paradigm has resulted in neither denuclearization nor peace. Three decades later, North Korea remains a vexing challenge. Yet with an American president more than happy to color outside the lines imposed by the Washington establishment, the old paradigm may finally be breaking down. Peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, including support for a more normal U.S.-North Korean bilateral relationship, has at long last become a goal pursued alongside—or even ahead of—ridding North Korea of its nuclear warheads, plutonium facilities, and missile production plants.

Steven Biegun, the Trump administration’s envoy to North Korea, expanded on this new approach in a speech [1] last month at Stanford University. “What we’re talking about is simultaneously looking at ways to improve [U.S.-North Korean] relations [and] looking at ways to advance a more stable and peaceful and ultimately a more legal peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” Biegun said.

This approach is totally alien to the Washington foreign policy community, which presided over a failed policy across successive administrations and that continues to take an ancillary view of the world in which the United States pressures other countries into doing what it wants without any compromise in return. These same experts interpret the promotion of peaceful relations on the Korean Peninsula not as a goal but as a concession to be bartered away in the course of negotiations for something greater.

But nothing is more beneficial to America’s national security interests and those of our allies in East Asia than a Korean Peninsula no longer at constant risk of confrontation, up to and including nuclear war.

Tranquility in the U.S.-North Korean relationship is not a point of leverage to be brandished in pursuit of Pyongyang’s denuclearization, which decades of stalemate have shown is unrealistic. On the contrary, peace on the Korean Peninsula should be the ultimate American foreign policy objective in northeast Asia.

There are some encouraging signs that the White House is coming around to this reality. Senior administration officials, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to President Trump himself, are talking more frequently about the importance of transforming the Korean Peninsula into a zone of opportunity. U.S. and North Korean officials are in preliminary discussions about opening up liaison offices [2] in one another’s capitals, as CNN reported this week. If that happens, it will be a significant step towards a more congenial bilateral relationship, one that would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

Active work to put diplomacy on a more solid foundation is the brightest signal to date that the Trump administration has recognized a more normal discourse with a long-time adversary. This is an historic accomplishment in its own right and may increase the chances of North Korea’s denuclearization in the future.

With President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un two weeks away from their second summit in eight months, many journalists and experts have focused on the question of what nuclear concessions the U.S. will secure. But there is a bigger story for those willing to see it: after nearly seven decades of mutual distrust, the U.S. and North Korea may find a way to coexist peacefully. This is the standard that will determine whether the current diplomacy can be labeled a success.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Learning to Coexist Peacefully With North Korea"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 22, 2019 @ 1:12 pm

What? Actually having face to face to talks between leaderships might improve relations —

Say it ain’t so.

Imagine that.

#2 Comment By One Guy On February 22, 2019 @ 2:35 pm

We’ve been peacefully co-existing with North Korea for some 65 years. What has changed since then under Trump?

#3 Comment By Paul McDonnell On February 22, 2019 @ 3:31 pm

Peaceful coexistence going forward will be based on nuclear deterrence- a far more dangerous situation than the past and one that needs careful + constant management

#4 Comment By Kouros On February 22, 2019 @ 3:31 pm

There are several things that might make this possible:
1. No big, powerful lobbying groups against NK (like with Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Russia).
2. NK has credible deterrents.
3. All in all, the hermetic kingdom is no really open to 5th columns under the control of outsiders.
4. China, and Russia do provide some guaranties and support, enough to keep the lights on.
5. Most importantly, SK, and Seul is not contemplating any war and would rather have peace at the north border, and as such they have realized that they must take a more active role and take their own destiny in their own hands and not rely on US’s interests, which do not align with Korea’s interests.
6. Giving this wiggle room to Trump, the Deep State is providing an outlet to the president to follow his instincts, probably with the silver lining being the example of the unified Germany, which fell entirely under US’s control. What if the same could be achieved in Korea?

I personally root for the people of both Koreas, first and foremost.

#5 Comment By Sid Finster On February 22, 2019 @ 3:38 pm

Trump’s own minions are doing their level best to sabotage the prospect of peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula.

Let’s see whether Trump is able to reach an agreement before we take a victory lap.

#6 Comment By polistra On February 24, 2019 @ 3:13 am

In reality it’s the nuclear deterrent that GUARANTEES a normal relationship. As long as any nation has nukes, we allow them to live. A nation without nukes dies.

#7 Comment By Salt Lick On February 24, 2019 @ 11:23 am

This great outbreak of peace is nothing more than acceptance that North Korea is now a member of the nuclear club. The only option left at this point is to deal with it by coming to a peaceful settlement since war is no longer an option. Trump has no other choice but to bribe, cajole and flatter Kim to ratchet down the threat. Today, accepting reality is now what passes for genius.

#8 Comment By LesB On February 24, 2019 @ 7:26 pm

Whether or not peace with North Korea is possible crucially depends on what Kim Jong-un’s long-term goals are, and what is going on his mind that leads him to pursue those goals.

For that reason those like Depetris who believe that peace is in fact possible should explain what they think are Kim’s goals and thinking, and what leads them to believe this.

#9 Comment By Kouros On February 24, 2019 @ 7:32 pm

The Nation has a more detailed article about US and Democrat position in this matter… Very sad:

[3]

#10 Comment By Sid Finster On February 25, 2019 @ 8:57 pm

Keep in mind that there is no powerful and influential lobby foaming at the mouth for a war on North Korea.

Somehow, Trump managing to resist a non-existent lobby isn’t a world-shaking accomplishment.