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The Clock Has Run Out on North Korea Talks

When our government makes impossible demands of another state, it is useless to scold them for their unpleasant rhetoric and lack of cooperation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin Receives North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un

The Trump administration’s North Korea envoy and Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun is in Seoul this week, and he has appealed to the North Korean side to “get this done”:

Biegun’s statement seems well-intentioned as far as it goes, but I fear that it shows how large the gap between the U.S. and North Korea remains. Despite ample evidence that North Korea and the U.S. do not agree about the goal of these negotiations, he maintains that Trump and Kim are committed to the same goal. He says that he has listened to North Korean statements, but it is clear that he and other members of the administration have not really understood them. The North Koreans’ statements have been “so hostile and negative” because the U.S. has so far offered them nothing significant and has shown no sign of understanding North Korea’s minimum requirements. The fact that Biegun finds these statements “unnecessary” doesn’t bode well for a constructive U.S. response. When the two sides don’t agree on what they are trying to achieve, it is pointless to say that they should “get this done.” More than a year and a half after the Singapore summit, there is still no consensus between the two governments on what “this” is, much less how they are supposed to bring “this” about. The North Koreans do know how to reach Biegun, but why are they going to bother if they assume he is just going to repeat the same demands all over again?

Biegun was quoted as saying this:

We have offered any number of creative ways to proceed with feasible steps and flexibility in our negotiations to reach balanced agreements that meet the objectives of both sides.

Perhaps Biegun believes that, but it seems obvious that the North Koreans don’t see much flexibility and whatever Biegun has offered them to date does not meet their objectives.

When our government makes impossible demands of another state, it is useless to scold them for their unpleasant rhetoric and lack of cooperation. The hostile rhetoric and lack of cooperation are products of the unreasonable demands. When you are effectively demanding unilateral surrender, you don’t get to complain that the other side refuses to submit. If the administration were willing to back off from its maximalist position and show real flexibility on sanctions, for example, they would probably find the other side to be open to offering modest concessions of their own. It is at least worth testing that by making North Korea a serious offer of sanctions relief and seeing what the U.S. and our allies can get in return. Unfortunately, the Trump administration remains a prisoner of its own dishonest portrayal of previous negotiations and remains wedded to a fantasy of disarmament that is derailing a realistic diplomatic compromise.

The Trump administration wasted the entire year, and it has refused to take North Korea’s end-of-year deadline seriously. Now the clock is about to run out. It didn’t have to work out this way, but between the foolish photo-op summits that accomplished nothing and the hard-line demands that the administration keeps making there was never much of a chance for constructive diplomacy. There has not been a serious effort at diplomatic engagement. In its place, there has been a show put on to create the illusion of engagement while the administration did none of the necessary work and took none of the risks required to make meaningful progress. A new crisis is coming, and Trump has no one but himself to blame for it.



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