Flashpoints | Diplomacy | Security | East Asia

Move US-North Korea Relations Into 2020, Not Back to 2017

U.S.-North Korea diplomacy can be productive, if Pyongyang accepts a recent invitation — and, more important, Washington is realistic in its demands.

By Bonnie Kristian for
Move US-North Korea Relations Into 2020, Not Back to 2017
Credit: Flickr

It’s time to resume negotiations between the United States and North Korea, U.S. special envoy to Pyongyang Stephen Biegun said while visiting South Korea on Monday. “It is time for us to do our jobs,” he told his North Korean counterparts in absentia. “Let’s get this done. We are here and you know how to reach us.” Christmas, Biegun said, should “usher in a season of peace.”

It should and could, if North Korea accepts Biegun’s invitation — and, more important, Washington is realistic in its demands. All the invitations in the world won’t bring us closer to peace if the Trump administration is unwilling to negotiate for attainable ends. And for the foreseeable future, denuclearization is not attainable. North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said so this very month.

Pyongyang’s logic here is straightforward: Leader Kim Jong Un wants to stay in power. He believes, as his state media has said in the past, that a nuclear arsenal is the only way to guarantee his regime’s security against foreign military intervention. He is especially afraid of intervention by the United States thanks to Washington’s recent role in ouster and killing of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, two dictators who gave up their nukes at Western behest. Protestation from Washington that we would never do regime change against you, Kim, will not find a credulous audience in Pyongyang, particularly not from an administration that until recently employed John “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First” Bolton.

None of this is speculation. It is all spelled out in explicit, public statements by the Kim regime. The complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) Washington demands is not a near-term option — which means U.S. diplomats are hobbled if CVID is what they are instructed to demand. Insisting on an outcome North Korea categorically will not accept at this time, whatever vague promises Kim has made at his summits with President Trump, makes a new round of talks a failure before they begin.

But it’s worse than that. Continued stalemate is not ideal, but it is acceptable. The United States has coexisted with a nuclear North Korea for more than a decade now, and we can continue to coexist for decades to come. U.S. conventional and nuclear power is overwhelmingly stronger than North Korea’s and always will be, which combined with Kim’s priority of regime (and personal) survival means U.S. deterrence capabilities are limitless. Pyongyang won’t launch an unprovoked first strike on the United States or allies like South Korea because Kim knows it would bring him a swift and certain end. This means further years of stasis in U.S.-North Korea relations, though unquestionably undesirable, are not catastrophic.

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No, the real risk here is not that failed talks mean nothing changes. The real risk is that they change things for the worse — that instead of moving into a new era of realist diplomacy in 2020, we head back to the “fire and fury” escalation of 2017. It’s that American negotiators ignore plausible diplomatic goals, like a nuclear freeze, a peace treaty for the Korean War, improved intra-Korean relations, or gradual normalization of North Korea’s internal and external politics. It’s that by insisting on CVID or nothing, Washington gets worse than nothing, plunging us into a fresh cycle of provocation that could well move past a war of words and on to actual war.

The CVID obsession in U.S. engagement with North Korea is dangerous in its own right, but among its unfortunate byproducts is a frequent inability to realize that denuclearization is ultimately a means to a greater end. The point of getting rid of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal is to avoid an utterly unnecessary war that could have a death toll in the millions, to say nothing of the economic havoc it would wreak worldwide. The point is to ensure cities like Seoul, with its population of 25 million in a metro area less than 50 miles from the DMZ, are not destroyed by a nuclear strike. The point is not to put Kim in a position where he feels he has nothing left to lose and may as well take everyone down with him.

The point is peace.

In the long term, that peace may well include a North Korean CVID. But in the short term, it will not. That is a fact Trump, Biegun, and other U.S. diplomats must accept. If they are willing to thus temper their expectations and negotiate accordingly, this Christmas could indeed be a fresh start for America and North Korea.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.