John Delury calls for a diplomatic effort in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test:
The test does not fundamentally change the situation on the Korean peninsula, though it is another acceleration. What is still missing is diplomacy. It is up to the Trump administration whether they want to flip this into an opportunity to belatedly start talking directly to Pyongyang, or just continue down the beaten track of shows of force, more UN sanctions, and secondary sanctions [bold mine-DL]. More of the same stuff that has been done for the last eight years.
Delury is a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, and everything he says here seems eminently sensible. The U.S. and the region are in the current predicament because a decade ago Washington wanted to pursue coercive measures rather than live with an agreement that was working. Continuing to reject diplomacy as the best available alternative traps all parties in a cycle of threats and counter-threats whose eventual outcome could be disastrous.
There are usually three main objections to directly negotiating with a “rogue” authoritarian regime. The first and least serious objection is that it “rewards” their behavior, but this is a silly reason not to negotiate with another government if doing so allows ours to make progress in resolving a dispute. Engagement with another government isn’t a “reward” for anyone. It is a necessary part of international relations, and refusing to use diplomatic tools that are available to us just deprives our government of a possible solution for the sake of spiting the other side. The second, very tired objection is that “diplomacy has been tried and failed,” but in most cases this is either not true or very misleading. In this case, U.S. and allied diplomacy secured an agreement that was succeeding in limiting North Korea’s nuclear program, and then the Bush administration blew it up in pursuit of the fantasy of getting North Korea to give up even more. That backfired badly, and led to the first nuclear test and North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT. The third objection is that the other regime can’t be trusted to abide by any agreement that it makes. That is always a possibility in making any agreement, but if the agreement is perceived to be mutually beneficial both parties will have strong incentives to honor its terms.
The immediate goal of any diplomatic effort with North Korea would be de-escalation and a commitment by all parties to refrain from provocative and aggressive actions. That could then form the basis of a series of negotiations on normalization of relations and removal of U.S. forces from the peninsula as part of a formal peace treaty to replace the armistice. That wouldn’t eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons or missile programs, but at this point it is doubtful that there is anything that could do that short of a major war. However, it would make the situation on the peninsula more stable and less likely to spiral into armed conflict. If the U.S. pursued talks with North Korea, that is the realistic goal that we should be trying to achieve. There may have been a chance to have a denuclearized peninsula in the past, but that opportunity was squandered. Now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to make the best of the bad situation that has been left to us.