War Stories

Let’s Talk About Nukes

It’s great news if Kim Jong-un is willing to talk about giving up his nuclear weapons. But whether it leads to a breakthrough is up to the Trump administration.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets members of the special delegation of South Korea’s president.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets members of the special delegation of South Korea’s president in this photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday. KCNA/via Reuters

Peace is not at hand with North Korea, but talks are, and President Donald Trump needs to get ready for them if he doesn’t want to foment a diplomatic disaster.

The big news (and it is big news) came Tuesday morning, when South Korean envoys said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had told them he was willing to hold nuclear talks with the United States—and suspend its tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear explosives while the talks continue. Kim also reportedly said that he would be open to giving up his nuclear weapons, in exchange for assurances of his country’s security.

How Kim, whose government has not yet confirmed the overture, defines that last point—just what he considers vital for his country’s security—could be the deal-killer. If he demands the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from South Korea or even the suspension of joint military exercises in the region, Trump (or any American president) couldn’t go along.

But the door is now wide open, for the first time in a dozen years, to begin talks. An unconditional moratorium on North Korean missile and nuclear tests is a genuine sweetener. And if Trump refuses the offer—if he demands, as he did as recently as Saturday, that Kim “de-nuke” before talks even begin—then he will only strengthen the North Korean regime and weaken America’s position in all of East Asia.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is properly skeptical of Kim’s overtures, but he and his Democratic Party ultimately want peace and harmony with North Korea. If Trump proves unwilling to give that goal the slightest chance—if it seems that he’s been imposing new sanctions and threatening war, not in order to push Kim to the bargaining table but simply to push him out of power or destroy his regime—then he will drive a wedge in U.S.–South Korean relations, and Moon will feel compelled to forge his own ties to the North. China will also feel less obligated to abide by U.N. trade sanctions. Japan will view this growing alignment of China and the two Koreas with alarm and—equally troubled by America’s declining influence in the region—will ratchet up its own military power, possibly even start developing its own nuclear arsenal

On the other hand, if Trump sends a delegation, he will shore up U.S. standing as a strong power and good ally. He could also take credit—and he might be, to some extent, correct—for making the talks happen through his threats to use force if Kim didn’t back down.

To the extent that Trump did cause this shift to happen, his success will be measured by how deftly he now pivots to exploit the opening. Sanctions and threats don’t often work; but when they do, they have to be put on the table along with the bad behavior that provoked them. To the extent Kim backs off from the bad behavior, Trump has to be ready to back off the sanctions or threats—or these talks will go nowhere.

The talks may go nowhere anyway, but they’re worth holding, for our own national-security interests, if just to keep North Korea from conducting more nuclear and missile tests. Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, suggests, “as a goodwill gesture,” that Trump and Moon announce that their next joint military exercises—scheduled for April—will not include any scenarios that involve killing the enemy’s leader. “This,” he writes, “would demonstrate US sensitivity toward genuine [North Korean] concerns while also demonstrating continued [U.S.] resolve to defend” South Korea.

But Trump must do more than send a delegation to talks. If the negotiations are to have any chance of success, or even if he simply wants to demonstrate that he stepped up threats and sanctions for peaceful aims and not just for their own sake, he needs to embark on a full-court diplomatic press in the region. This should involve sending emissaries to Japan and South Korea in particular, coordinating common negotiating positions and assuring them that he’s not hellbent on war but that he won’t sacrifice their security interests either.

Two questions raise their heads at this point: First, is Trump inclined to do all this? Second, is his administration able to follow through? As to the first question, I doubt he’s given it much thought, but if enough of his advisers and enablers persuade him that he could be a historic peacemaker, who knows where he might be swayed? The second question is, in a way, tougher: Let’s say Trump can be maneuvered to send someone to the talks—who would that be?

I’ve written this many times, but it’s still true and more pertinent than ever: Our government has no ambassador to South Korea; the State Department’s back-channel contact with North Korea recently resigned over Trump’s belligerent policies; and Trump’s top three foreign policy officials—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and (still, for the moment) National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster—have little to no experience in Asia.

He does, finally, have an assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, Randall Schriver, though his background is more in monitoring China and Taiwan. And Trump’s nominated a very capable assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Susan Thornton, who is meanwhile serving as acting assistant secretary. (Another point in Thornton’s favor: Steve Bannon, when he was in the White House, declared war on Thornton, trying to oust her from the State Department; he failed.)

Still, there are no medium-to-high-level officials who have had experience in negotiating with North Koreans, and this is a serious problem. Kim’s father and grandfather were maddening to deal with, but they had a negotiating style. American diplomats who cracked the code were able to hammer out an accord, if there was one to be had; those who didn’t know there was a code generally failed. The successful diplomats knew when to ease up and when to push back. For example, toward the end of the talks leading to the Agreed Framework, the 1994 agreement under which Kim Jong-il’s regime agreed to suspend its plutonium-weapons program, the North Koreans announced that a signing ceremony would take place the following day. The U.S. diplomats were puzzled; there were still five outstanding issues to resolve. The North Koreans dismissed the objection, saying the deal would incorporate their positions. These were minor issues, but the Americans walked away, said they were flying home. The North Koreans backtracked, and the issues were resolved, to mutual satisfaction. (This story and a discussion of the Kims’ diplomatic style comes from Scott Snyder’s excellent book, Negotiating on the Edge, which should be required reading for anyone who does join the U.S. delegation, if there is one.)

Tillerson would probably head this delegation. He did, after all, pursue back-channel talks with North Koreans a few months ago, until Trump publicly undermined him. He should bring along Thornton and the handful of midlevel officials at State and the National Security Council who have at least studied the issues. He should also consult with the dozen or so former officials who have actually conducted negotiations with North Koreans, though he would probably have to keep such discussions private, as most of them are Democrats who worked for President Clinton or Obama and are, therefore, blacklisted from contact lists. (A few worked for George W. Bush, though, once they leaped to hold talks, after six years of resolute refusal to do so, the North Koreans took them to the cleaners.)

This could be a genuine turning point. In any case, it’s a test—the first, really—of what Trump can accomplish on the world stage when faced with an opportunity that is, perhaps in part, of his own making.