North Korea Says It Wants to Talk, So Let's. . .
At the recent 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un declared that North Korea won't use nuclear weapons unless it feels threatened by nuclear-armed countries. What “feels threatened” means is anyone’s guess, but a pledge like that isn’t the action of a politician insecure in his position.
In April, the North Korean Foreign Minister, referring to the U.S. and South Korea, told The Associated Press, "Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests.” Obama’s response? “They're going to have to do better than that."
This is the better. Kim Jong-Un, a 33-year old leader at the head of a freshly purged regime, is confident enough to publicly ask for talks. He is hedging his position by dual-track development of nuclear weapons and an (undefined) Five Year Plan for the civil economy, and he can repeat the offer of talks on 20 January 2017. He saw what happened to Gadhafi, and as to security guarantees for giving up nuclear weapons, well, Ukraine springs rudely to mind. If worse comes to worst, he might take the same deal as Iran.
North Korea has repeatedly offered to start talks to end the Korean War. The U.S. response is always to require that nuclear weapons be part of the discussion, so no discussion ever takes place. Is the U.S. being canny or obstinate? Does the U.S. want to end the Korean War? Maybe not. The U.S. derives a significant advantage from stationing troops and intelligence collection assets on the Korean peninsula under the UN flag. Come a treaty, North Korea (and China) will probably insist they have to go.
By not talking to North Korea we lose the ability to assess the personalities of their diplomats and political leaders. In recent years, Iran and its proxies killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. Today we have a deal with Iran. Saddam Hussein? A bad, bad man, but Donald Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to shake his hand and deliver a message from the President of the United States. The Soviet Union was responsible for 15 million deaths by one accounting, but we never stopped negotiating with them. If he studies history, Kim Jong-Un knows all this and is either perplexed or confident he knows America’s true intent towards his country (and him).
So let’s start talking. Kim Jong-Un will take all sorts of credit on North Korean TV, but so what? He probably doesn’t care what the viewers in Pyongyang think and neither should we. The only American Kim Jong-Un has likely spoken to is Dennis Rodman. Now, I admire ‘The Worm’ for his rebounding, but a Foreign Service Officer he isn’t. We need professional diplomats to start talking and stay talking through North Korea’s tantrums and provocations.
And let’s lower our expectations to: the official end to the Korean War, then IAEA monitoring, and a gradual end to sanctions linked to the North’s nuclear transparency. The U.S. will have to manage its alliances with Japan and South Korea while North Korea will be trying to split them, and everyone will be expecting China to “deliver” the North. It’s going to be tough and it’s going to be tedious, but we have able diplomats and the sooner we start the sooner we’ll be done.
And about the U-word: unification. The “unification-industrial complex” will insist on it, but is it really necessary? To start, China won’t want a U.S.-allied country on its border and there won’t be an end to the Korean War without China. Absorbing East Germany cost West Germany 2 trillion Euros and that was in a benign political environment. If Korean unification goes awry, China will be working overtime to ensure its border with North Korea doesn’t resemble the U.S. border with Mexico. And what’s in it for the North? From their point of view, why would a nation that built its own submarine launched ballistic missile and nuclear weapons while under severe sanctions agree to be absorbed by an American protectorate that is the leading exporter of flat-screen TVs and K-Pop.
If the Koreas are at peace and remain divided, the U.S. may be able to retain the South Korea platform for troop basing, port calls, and intelligence gathering. China won’t have a U.S. ally on its border (and the U.S. ally won’t have China on its border). South Korea (and the rest of the world) can avoid footing the bill for reunification, currently estimated at $500 billion by the South Korean government. That might be the best we can do, but we won’t know until we start talking.