The shortest path to reducing the tensions on and around the Korean Peninsula may be a direct meeting between the president of the United States and North Korea’s dictator.
Nothing else has worked. A military solution, while always in our quiver, must be our last resort; even a conventional war would kill millions of people as South Korea and Japan are well within range of Kim Jong-Un’s missiles.
The direct approach I propose would violate diplomatic norms, protocol and longstanding policy. Some observers may point out that North Korea’s leader is a vicious dictator and we don’t talk to extortionists. Others will call it inappropriate; others, dangerous. Indeed, it is a path that risks miscalculation or a misstatement that could seriously aggravate the situation. All would be correct. But nothing else is working. We should remember that we engaged butchers like Stalin and Mao for years, when we needed to. This is not weakness, it is simply pure realpolitik.
The North Korean boy-dictator’s desire to be recognized and accepted in the bigger world has been brewing since his boarding school days in Switzerland. The depth of his insecurities is impossible to ignore. Look how he enthusiastically reacted to the eccentric NBA star’s Denis Rodman visits to Pyongyang. Mull North Korea’s retaliatory cyberattack on Sony for releasing “The Interview,” 2014’s thinly-veiled lampooning of Kim Jong-Un. Consider Kim’s deep distrust of his own inner circle; his paranoid mind likely sees a plot hatching behind every pagoda. Put simply, secure people don’t kill their relatives and publicly blow defense ministers apart while they’re tied to anti-aircraft guns.
A face-to-face meeting does not mean agreement or harmony. Nor should it confer an iota of recognition on North Korea as a nuclear power. And it wouldn’t mean curtailing regional exercises such as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian or lifting sanctions against North Korea. It would simply be a forum for the two leaders to express their views and concerns. Dialogue might establish something that is missing: a rudimentary relationship that ideally would expand over time to key subordinates and involve regional players from which a faint chance of some collective “problem-resolving” could emerge. Even a prickly relationship, peppered with distrust, would be a far cry better than where we are right now.
A face-to-face meeting is also an opportunity to knit together regional states that have skin in the game. In the first meeting, the U.S. would probably have to go it alone, but only after close consultation with blood ally Seoul, allied Japan, others in the region, and the United Nations. It is almost certain that Kim would not travel to places like Guam, Seoul, or Tokyo. Perhaps such a meeting could be held in Putin’s Far East or Xi’s Manchuria.
Related: Defense One’s North Korea coverage
Besides developing an “understanding” between our two countries, this likely would be the only way to directly engage the North Korean dictator on the folly of further fielding a nuclear-tipped ICBM. Better for him to hear the caution delivered in an eyeball-to-eyeball meeting than via an official communique.
Such a meeting could also be a chance to reduce Kim’s paranoia about the outside world’s desire for regime change. To that end, all public discussions about regime change should stop now. They only agitate an easily-rattled, weapons-bristling North Korea that—even without nukes—can blow Seoul off the map. Talk of removing Kim also pits us diplomatically against China and Russia, both of whom are concerned about a major refugee influx, but more strategically, abhor the thought of a U.S.-backed South Korea filling the territorial vacuum of a fallen Pyongyang regime.
North Korea is akin to a poisonous snake. Our global collective could easily crush it, but all it would take is one venom-filled bite during its death throes to badly hurt us.
Our President, despite the compelling reasons noted earlier in this essay, should offer to meet with the North Korean dictator. Perhaps the Chinese, feeling much pressure themselves, could “encourage” Kim to do this. The stakes are too high, too potentially violent and bloody not to give it a try. If Kim says no and rejects his best chance for survival, so be it, we took the high ground and the situation will have become even more starkly clear.
Our internal political division also needs to be parked for this looming crisis. The North Koreans just tested a massive nuclear bomb and threaten to launch more destabilizing long-range missiles. Every measure should first be taken short of military action to arrest this potential madness. Of course, our armed forces must be razor-wire ready if a worse case transpires. In the end, other than sweeping aside diplomatic protocol, what’s the risk of offering a meeting, compared to the growing prospect of a grisly regional conflict — non-nuclear that could include hideous chemical or biological munitions, or even worse, explosively nuclear —where millions of innocents would surely die?