South Korean officials declared that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is prepared to negotiate with the US over denuclearizing the peninsula and normalizing relations. US President Donald Trump declared his policy has worked and he has accepted an invitation to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
This is good news, if true. However, even if true, it is merely the first step in achieving a stable peace in Northeast Asia and any talks are likely to be conducted on North Korea’s rather than the US’ terms.
The North’s professed willingness to denuclearize might not result in denuclearization.
The South Koreans who met with Kim suggest that peace is in the air: The DPRK wants dialogue and is prepared to denuclearize.
However, so far Kim has not spoken. After Seoul’s announcement, the North Korean Communist Party’s newspaper justified Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons. That might just indicate that Pyongyang intends to strike a hard bargain, but the North’s position will not be truly known until Kim responds.
Moreover, there is nothing particularly new in Pyongyang’s presumed offer to talk. In the past, North Korea has engaged the US in dialogue over denuclearization, but that did not mean that the North was willing to abandon its weapons.
There have been no recent official talks because the Trump administration insisted that the North agree beforehand to the main issue: denuclearization.
However, indicating a theoretical willingness to disarm is not the same.
The DPRK says it wants sufficient security guarantees. In the past, the North demanded that the US end its alliance with South Korea and withdraw US troops from the region.
Asking for more than Washington will give would not be simple duplicity, though North Korea obviously is capable of such. However, even if a Trump-Kim summit occurs, what rational dictator on Washington’s naughty list would trust the Trump administration and its successors?
Every former US president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama ousted at least one regime not to the US’ liking. Obama even targeted former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi after the latter negotiated away his nuclear weapons and missiles.
Trump repudiated the agreement reached between his predecessor and Iran and threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.
Kim is unlikely to accept expressions of goodwill and paper guarantees as sufficient.
Pyongyang has long desired talks with the US and there was even talk of a summit between former US president Bill Clinton and former North Korean leader Kim jong-il. It appears that Pyongyang has simply repackaged a long-standing objective.
An anonymous Trump administration official insisted that Washington’s policy “will not change until we see credible moves toward denuclearization” and dismissed entering into talks encumbered by “non-starter conditions,” as in the past.
However, the North would not abandon its leverage without receiving something in return. It can simply backstep its conditions, from agreeing to negotiate to agreeing to disarm.
Despite such caveats, negotiations offer a way out of today’s crisis, with the Trump administration threatening to start the Second Korean War. After having helped keep the peace for 65 years, it would be foolish for the administration to risk triggering another massive conflict on the peninsula, especially one that could lead to a nuclear exchange.
The DPRK has long been the land of second-best options, but in advance of a presumed summit, Washington should work with South Korea and Japan to develop a common denuclearization offer for the DPRK and then seek Chinese backing.
Denuclearization should remain Washington’s long-term objective, but if the North proves less receptive than South Korea suggests, the US should pursue other advantageous, if short-term, goals in the meantime, such as freezing North Korean missile and nuclear development. Policymakers should also consider creative options if these efforts reach a dead end, as in the past.
Kim Jong-un’s apparent offer to meet with Trump is a gambit in a larger strategy for dealing with the US. As such, it might prove to be more opportunity than breakthrough.
Still, Trump should pursue the chance to sit down with Kim Jong-un and search for a peaceful exit from the dangerous policy cul-de-sac into which the administration has driven.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to US president Ronald Reagan.
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