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The Case for Talking to North Korea

All diplomatic options should be exhausted before considering the use of military force.

Last week, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul made a critical point 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.

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. 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.”

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.