It seems fair to say the Trump administration’s policy on whether to engage in direct diplomatic talks with Kim Jong-Un’s regime in North Korea is still developing. It’s time to stop waffling.
President Donald Trump and members of his administration have articulated a range of stances about starting negotiations with Kim over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The White House seems to be broadly against the idea, yet cabinet officials have floated the potential for talks and the president this week reiterated his campaign statements saying he would meet with Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances.”
The Trump administration should have a consistent policy supporting talks. Negotiations would be smart national security strategy, even if they come to naught. Trying to bargain with the Kim regime would be frustrating, given North Korea’s history of bad-faith negotiations and the heinous nature of the regime. Nevertheless, four major reasons rooted in tough-minded realism show why a diplomatic process makes sense.
1. Give Kim Jong-Un a forum to make concessions.
The administration’s current approach focuses on increasing pressure on Kim to give up his nuclear and missile programs, as evidenced by the administration’s escalating rhetoric, (misplaced) military saber-rattling and focus on tightening sanctions. The Trump strategy presumes that Kim will eventually buckle in the face of increased pressure.
In order for this strategy to work Washington must provide Pyongyang with clear off-ramps where Kim can choose to deviate from his current path in favor of behavior more amenable to U.S. interests. If successful, United States negotiators will need a forum for hashing out the specifics due to the highly technical nature of nuclear and missile disarmament and verification. Washington should create a relatively less-painful and face-saving way for Pyongyang to cave. A negotiation process could provide just the venue.
2. Depart from the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” strategy and start the clock.
So far, Trump’s policies toward Pyongyang seem to differ from Obama’s only in name and level of bluster. The Trump administration has stated on several occasions that they want to ditch the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea. Strategic patience, which the Obama administration adopted after the February 2012 Leap Day Deal crumbled, shelved negotiations in favor of gradually increased pressure and waiting for changes to the underlying situation
The potential for diplomatic engagement offers a real opportunity to change tack. The administration — and U.S. military and intelligence assessments — rightly recognizes that time favors North Korea’s quickly advancing nuclear and missile programs. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NPR, “We don’t have the running room left.” The time crunch argues in favor of starting negotiations now. A diplomatic process could be structured in a number of different ways, but any format is likely to take months if not years even in the best-case scenario.
Holding back on starting a negotiating process until all pressure has taken effect is not necessary and could be counterproductive, given the urgency stated above. American negotiators should instead get down to finding a venue, indentifying interlocutors, and exploring where exactly the parties stand on the issues. U.S. diplomats can then aim for pressure to peak as the process matures.
3. Keep China on board while avoiding becoming over-reliant on Beijing.
Trump has placed the burden of dealing with North Korea on China for now, a responsibility Beijing rejects. Xi has responded with symbolic gestures, but over the long term it is unwise to rely on China to address North Korea’s bad behavior. Seizing the initiative on negotiations could be a useful way for Washington to retain a central role in shaping events—ideally in conjunction with Beijing but going it alone if required. Right now a Chinese initiative represents the main compromise proposal being discussed. It is known as the “freeze-for-freeze” plan and would have North Korea freeze its programs in return for a freeze on U.S. military exercises with South Korea. Washington has rightly rejected this proposal in the past, but the United States needs to offer an alternative.
4. Help justify eventual military action in the eyes of the world, if it becomes necessary.
The last reason why negotiations would be smart strategy is perhaps the most important. The Trump administration could conclude it needs to use military force to destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. To be sure, military options for North Korea will remain deeply problematic. Any strike would be bloody and likely to provoke massive retaliation from Pyongyang, especially against South Korea and Japan. A military strike would be tantamount to war, and thus should be not thrown around lightly.
That said, to the extent that the administration is seriously considering force—and signs say they are—having engaged in a serious effort to find a negotiated solution will be crucial for garnering international support for war. Most of the world, including U.S. allies, evince serious skepticism about Washington’s use of military force to address problems. A credible negotiating process could be the difference between world opinion viewing strikes as a justified and proportional act of self-defense versus a trigger-happy war of prevention. What might seem like diplomatic niceties will make all the difference when it comes time to deal with managing North Korean escalation and the messy aftermath of war.
There is a seductive righteousness in refusing to sit down at a table with the world’s most repugnant regime. But Trump should not let short-term satisfaction get in the way of crafting an effective strategy to achieve American goals—or as Trump calls it, “winning.” Making an effort to negotiate with Pyongyang will help Washington’s cause, not hurt it, and thus should become a central element of U.S. strategy to deal with North Korea.
Jacob Stokes is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, where he works on U.S. foreign policy and Asian regional security issues. He was previously a national security staffer working on Asia in the Office of Vice President Joe Biden. Follow him on Twitter @jacobstokes.