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North Korea-U.S. talks are restarting. Here's a new strategy so they can succeed.

The Trump administration should stop viewing peace on the Korean Peninsula as a sideshow to denuclearization.
Image: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un
President Donald Trump poses with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Despite the implosion of a summit between the United States and North Korea seven months ago, the two sides have confirmed that working-level talks will resume this week. The outreach is already off to an inauspicious start: On the same day North Korean First Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui confirmed the resumption of the U.S.-North Korea dialogue on Saturday, Pyongyang fired what South Korea believes is a submarine-launched ballistic missile towards Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Efforts at negotiations reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program have vexed multiple presidencies for decades. But President Donald Trump remains committed to the diplomatic track. With the hawkish John Bolton no longer lurking in the West Wing as his national security adviser, Trump is now presented with a prime opportunity to make more progress than his predecessors.

If Washington is truly interested in making headway with North Korea, it needs to undergo a significant evolution in its overall strategy.

But if Trump is expecting a denuclearization-first, sanctions relief-later diplomatic formula to work, he better prepare for disappointment. Zero-sum demands have not been effective with the Kim regime in the past, and there’s no reason to think they will be more effective in the future. If Washington is truly interested in making headway with North Korea, it needs to undergo a significant evolution in its overall strategy.

U.S. policy on North Korea over the last quarter-century has been guided by a simple but flawed framework: Until and unless Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear infrastructure and permits the international community to verify it without the slightest restriction, North Korea will be unable to enjoy the fruits of a productive relationship with the rest of the world.

As a result, peace on the Korean Peninsula and improvement in relations between North and South have taken a backseat to Washington’s fixation on denuclearization -- and was indeed prefaced on Pyongyang meeting Washington’s nuclear demands. Rather than being national security objectives in their own right, peace and economic tranquility were used as leverage to force the Kim regime into nuclear concessions.

The result was predictable; far from handing over the keys to the nuclear kingdom, the late Kim Jong Il and then his son Kim Jong Un refused to operate by Washington’s rules. Despite several short-term agreements, joint communiques and declarations during the last four U.S. administrations — including the vague 2018 Singapore statement between Trump and Kim promising denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the building of a “lasting and stable peace regime” and the establishment of more constructive bilateral relations — the North Korean nuclear arsenal has continued to grow despite an ever more tangled web of U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions.

This would come as no surprise to foreign policy realists who have long understood that the Kim regime continues to value nuclear weapons as its main guarantor of the continuation of its rule. Indeed, it would be more surprising had Kim Jong Un cooperated. To expect a highly paranoid and nationalistic North to capitulate was to base U.S. policy on hope instead of cold-hearted facts.

If the Trump administration enters working-level talks this week based on the same old all-or-nothing paradigm, it will meet a similar dead end. Trump will have to make some significant changes to his policy if he hopes to break through the logjam.

First and foremost, the administration should stop viewing peace on the Korean Peninsula as a sideshow to denuclearization or a less important goal. The United States can live with a nuclear North Korea indefinitely due to its overwhelming military superiority. However, to allow an inter-Korean relationship characterized by mutual antagonism, historical suspicion and miscommunication to persist could quickly lead to a military conflict that would inevitably drag Washington in, given the 28,000-strong U.S. troop force presence in South Korea.

The U.S., therefore, should make the establishment of stable and amicable North-South and U.S.-North Korea relations a top priority. This also helps to address the nuclear issue because the North’s nuclear weapons development is a direct reflection of how it perceives its security environment. Surrounded by far wealthier neighbors and longtime enemies with few if any legitimate allies (the extent of China’s relationship with Pyongyang is not as healthy as conventional wisdom suggests), the North Koreans have no incentive to cap — let alone eliminate — their nuclear deterrent.

Simply put: In order for Washington to get some movement on North Korea’s nuclear program, it will need to give something in return. And that means taking the kinds of actions that improve the likelihood of a durable peace on the Korean Peninsula — something everyone in the region would gain from.

None of this is possible as long as Washington remains unwilling to provide South Korean President Moon Jae-in with the flexibility and power to enact his peace agenda with Pyongyang. The U.S. will be required to relax the sanctions architecture that has blocked the very cross-border economic and infrastructure projects that would link the North and the South, increase trust between both and set the table for a more comprehensive negotiation between the two Koreas on everything from military reduction to diplomatic normalization..

Second, while formal U.S.-North Korea relations are unlikely in the near term, there is nothing hindering minor improvements in ties such as the exchange of liaison officers in each other’s capitals. The opening of liaison offices is hardly a novel idea; it was envisioned in the 1994 Agreed Framework to begin to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program and has always been on the table. Yet, the move hasn’t happened.

Regularizing points of contact between two long-time adversaries and affording U.S. officials with an opportunity to form more lasting relationships with their North Korean counterparts would be a prudent step for both. An absence of regular dialogue only provides fodder for those in Pyongyang to promote a hard line and hampers the ability of the U.S. and the North to minimize the prospect of a miscalculation transforming into a conflict.

Third, Washington must have trust in itself as it proceeds with negotiations. Despite the hyperactivity over the North’s nuclear arsenal, the recent volley of short-range missile tests and the Kim regime’s investment in military modernization (such as progress on a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability), the U.S. has a superior advantage in both power and time.

The fact that the Kim regime continues to produce nuclear bomb-grade fuel doesn’t make it any more interested in attacking the United States.

The fact that the Kim regime continues to produce nuclear bomb-grade fuel doesn’t make it any more interested in attacking the United States. Kim Jong Un may be a ruthless tyrant who squelches all dissent, but as a top official in the CIA’s Korea Mission Center has publicly stated, he is not a maniac seeking war with the U.S. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence seems to agree: In its annual worldwide threat assessment from 2017, the ODNI wrote that “We have long assessed that Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige and coercive diplomacy.”

Arbitrarily launching a nuclear missile at U.S. territory would serve none of those objectives and would in fact guarantee Kim’s own demise and the destruction of his seven-decade-old family dynasty.

The Trump administration’s diplomacy with North Korea can still succeed, but only if the president is realistic about what he can achieve and confident of America’s strength along the way.