Since President Donald Trump took office a year ago, the U.S. posture toward North Korea has grown increasingly combative but a former high-level diplomat experienced in nuclear negotiations said North Korea – not Trump – is mostly to blame for the escalating tensions.
Joseph DeTrani, a former special envoy for the six-party talks that were aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear program, said Korean President Kim Jong Un is a provocateur himself, and has backed up his inflammatory statements with increasingly dangerous actions.
“In my view, it (the heightened tensions) is not because of the rhetoric, it is because of a country that has had 23 missile launches and an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) that can hit the U.S., taking out Washington and New York, and a nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb,” DeTrani said. “That’s what has made this situation as tense as it is right now. The rhetoric has personalized it but I don’t think it is the reason.”
DeTrani will discuss the pressing international topic on Tuesday, Jan. 23, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Journal Center as part of the Albuquerque International Association’s ongoing lecture series. The talk includes a question-and-answer session.
North Korea set off a hydrogen bomb last September, marking its sixth nuclear test, which experts concluded was its most powerful explosion yet. North Korea also conducted two nuclear tests last year, including one on the Sept. 9 anniversary of the nation’s founding. It has since maintained a torrid pace in weapons tests, including its first two intercontinental ballistic missiles test in July. In August, North Korea fired a potentially nuclear-capable midrange missile over northern Japan.
DeTrani said six-party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S. made little progress after multiple rounds from 2003-2007, but then North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid and steps towards the normalization of relations with the United States and Japan. But the pariah nation abruptly withdrew in 2009 over an official condemnation by the United Nations, and negotiations have stalled ever since.
“North Korea has said it would never come back to talks,” DeTrani said. “The Trump administration was given a weak hand. For the last three to four years before the administration came in we had a policy of strategic patience where we weren’t talking to the North Koreans and wouldn’t sit down with them until they were prepared to get rid of all of their nuclear weapons.”
Despite his confrontational rhetoric – Trump has belittled Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and threatened “fire and fury” if North Korea tested the U.S. militarily – the administration has shown an openness to talking, DeTrani said.
“The Trump administration came in and said we’re putting everything on the table from diplomacy to military options,” he said. “Some of these tweets and comments from the president – fire and fury and all that – made it clear to the North Koreans that the United States is not a paper tiger, we’re prepared to do it.
“When it became personal it offended Kim Jong Un,” DeTrani said. “The irony here is he calls everybody outside of North Korea the most vicious names. They’re used to doing it but they’re not used to receiving it.”
“I think there is a little more clarity in North Korea that the U.S. is not going to be very patient with North Korea building their nuclear arsenal, and the situation has become very tense,” DeTrani said.
But while the former U.S. security official gives Trump credit for engagement on the issue of North Korea, he cautioned against a pre-emptive strike. A Wall Street Journal report this month said the Trump administration was considering a pre-emptive strike on North Korean military capabilities to “bloody the nose” of the rogue regime as a warning. But analysts fear a retaliatory strike by North Korea – especially a nuclear one – could endanger millions of South Koreans and U.S. military personnel stationed in the region.
“I would be very, very, very cautious about anything of a preventive nature, DeTrani said. “Anything that speaks to a strike inside of North Korea taking out a missile launch facility or nuclear facility I think the North Koreans are on almost an automatic pilot to respond to anything of that nature.”
So, what can the U.S. do to quell the potentially deadly tension?
“We need to talk to the North Koreans – unconditional talks,” DeTrani said. “We need to sit down and deal with them. The irony is that what North Korea wants most is a normal state-to-state relationship with the United States, but they want it on their own terms. Accept them as a nuclear weapons state and they could be good friends of the United States, but obviously we’re not going to go there.”
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