Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signalled on Friday that President Donald Trump’s administration may finally have accepted the one course of action that could actually stop North Korea’s nuclear threat to the world — direct talks.
After months of US military posturing and shows of force met by North Korean nuclear threats, Tillerson admitted in an interview with NPR that direct talks with the Kim regime “would be the way we would like to solve this.”
This comes as a bit of a reversal from a statement from Vice President Mike Pence, who said just over a week ago that the US would not consider talks with the North Koreans.
However, the US and China’s shared goal of denuclearizing North Korea may be dead on arrival.
“Denuclearization is probably a nonstarter for a dialogue,” Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Stimson Center told Business Insider.
In 2003, George W. Bush’s administration engaged in the six party talks with North Korea, but in 2009, when the time came for North Korea to implement the verifiable, complete, and irreversible destruction of their nuclear capabilities, the Kim regime backed out.
The experience proved a searing moment for US diplomats and created lasting doubts about the North Koreans’ sincerity towards diplomacy, according to Sun. In the years since, North Korea has written their possession of nuclear weapons into their constitution as a guarantor of their security.
So while the US demands North Korea denuclearize, and North Korea clings to their weapons for security, the question since 2009 has been “If we are going to talk to North Korea , what are we going to talk about?” according to Sun.
Indeed at this point, the only way to completely take out the Kim regime’s nuclear program would be a large-scale, bloody military campaign in which the North Koreans would do their best to hit US and South Korean forces with nuclear weapons.
But short of complete denuclearization, there is hope for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula without bloodshed.
“A more realistic goal would be denuclearization in time,” said Sun, who suggested a moratorium or freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs presents a much more fruitful place to begin talks.
“If we can engage North Korea and have a deal about them freezing their nuclear development in exchange for some sort of security guarantee then the US and South Korea could suspend their military exercises on the peninsula,” he said.
North Korea has offered up such a deal in the past, but the US has refused, saying that their regularly scheduled, peaceful military exercises pose nowhere near the treat that nuclear proliferation does.
But halting the military drills could demonstrate that dialogue, not military threats or action, represents the way forward. If the US started an Iran deal-type program with North Korea, they could begin trade and normalizing relations with the hermit kingdom. In time, while North Korea benefits from exposure to the outside world, denuclearization would become much more likely, and the US would have a freer hand to pressure the Kim regime in that direction.
For now, “the realistic agenda is not denuclearization,” said Sun, “but a halt of their nuclear program.” And only through diplomacy can the US reasonably hope to achieve this.
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