It happens that desperadoes hold groups of people hostage — for instance in planes or banks. Sometimes the police or military take some quick action or try some ruse to remove the danger. Sometimes they refrain from moving an inch for fear that hostages will be killed or some disastrous explosion set off. They may seek to talk the desperado out of his corner, perhaps offer to fly a plane hijacker to another destination after releasing his hostage. In many cases, they simply wait. Often — but not always — tiredness and exhaustion bring an end without drama.
Are we in a similar situation with North Korea? The big powers recognize that the threat or use of military power is not an option. Actions against key targets in North Korea could hardly be quick enough to prevent the regime inflicting horrible damage on South Korea and perhaps Japan. It need not use nuclear weapons. Seoul is within artillery range from the North. A sudden collapse of the North Korean state would also be a nightmare.
So what about talking? It has been done with varying success for many years and will no doubt be continued. The US has sometimes voiced threats and increased pressures, and usually thereby made the situation more dangerous. However, even during former US president George W. Bush’s second term, the US seems to have concluded that, to talk North Korea out of its nuclear program, the regime must be offered something that is more useful to it than nuclear weapons and missile programs. Conversely, the regime knows that for doing away with these programs, it can demand a great deal.
Over the years, the North Korean regime has had good reasons to fear efforts to eliminate it through actions from outside — military attacks or subversive activities. It seems wise, therefore, that guarantees against such actions may have been placed on the table. For the North Korean government, the question may be what offers the best security — nuclear weapons of their own or a piece of paper.
Perhaps a piece of paper could be made more attractive if it were signed by the great powers and combined with a peace treaty. Perhaps it would also be more credible if it were offered in the margin of the revival of international nuclear disarmament. While allowing civilian nuclear power and guaranteeing access to uranium fuel, it would have to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, enrichment of uranium and reprocessing on the whole Korean peninsula.
The North Korean regime has often been isolated and ostracized. Although there have been good reasons for this, the country may well have felt humiliated. Against that background, the offer of diplomatic relations with the US and Japan, and normal relations with the world at large, may have considerable value as a part of a quid pro quo for dismantling the nuclear weapons program and for other forms of engagement — for instance, against the proliferation of nuclear and missile technology.
Many other offers can and are already part of the sweet talk: food and economic assistance of various kinds and energy assistance (oil and perhaps a resumption of the construction of two light-water reactors that were part of the 1994 agreed framework). There may be limits to the persuasive power of the Chinese government, but it is significant and there can be no doubt that Beijing has an enormous interest in using it. A nuclear-capable North Korea shooting missiles over Japan could push Tokyo in a direction that would sharply increase tensions with China.