Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled on Friday that the Trump administration may have finally accepted the one course of action that could 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 said in an interview with NPR that direct talks with the Kim regime “would be the way we would like to solve this.”
This is a bit of a reversal from Vice President Mike Pence’s statement just over a week ago that the US would not consider talks with the North Koreans.
However, the US’s 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, the Bush administration engaged in the six-party talks with North Korea, but in 2009, when the time came for North Korea to implement the verifiable and irreversible destruction of its 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 in diplomacy, according to Sun. Since then, North Korea has written its possession of nuclear weapons into its constitution as a guarantor of its security.
So while the US demands North Korea denuclearize and North Korea clings to its weapons for security, the question since 2009, according to Sun, has been: “If we are going to talk to North Korea, what are we going to talk about?”
At this point, the only way to eliminate 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 said a moratorium or freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs would present 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 in the past offered such a deal, but the US has refused, saying its regularly scheduled, peaceful military exercises pose nowhere near the threat 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 a program with North Korea similar to the Iran nuclear deal, it could begin to trade and normalize relations with the Hermit Kingdom.
In time, as 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,” Sun said, “but a halt of their nuclear program.” And only through diplomacy can the US reasonably hope to achieve this.