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Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump said that “under the right circumstances,” he would meet with North Korean President Kim Jong Un, who continues to increase his nation’s nuclear arsenal. With the recent election in South Korea of President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned for renewed negotiations between the two Koreas, the circumstances might indeed be just right.
Kim Jong Un has repeatedly stated that he wants the same thing North Korea’s previous leaders—his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung—wanted: first, assurance that North Korea won’t be invaded again, and second, electricity for economic development to replace the hydropower capacity the United States destroyed with massive strategic bombing in the first years of the Korean War, which was fought from 1950 to 1953. These were the two demands North Korea made, and the Clinton administration agreed to, in 1994, when North Korea pledged to stop producing plutonium in exchange for nuclear power plants.
North Korea’s president is fully aware that attacking the United States would be tantamount to suicide. In 2000, as President Kim Jong Il told a South Korean newspaper publisher, “[Our] missiles cannot reach the United States, and if I launched them the U.S. would fire a thousand missiles back and we would not survive. I know that very well. But I have to let them know I have missiles. I am making them because only then will the United States talk to me.” Shortly thereafter, during a visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he agreed to a moratorium on missile construction.
The 1994 energy-for-weapons agreement worked until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, after which U.S. President George W. Bush claimed that North Korea was part of a so-called axis of evil with Iraq and Iran. Two years later, the United States invaded Iraq. North Korean leaders quite rationally concluded that Iraq’s mistake was not its pursuit of a weapon but rather its failure to build one. They conducted their first nuclear weapons test three years later, in 2006.
Washington’s continued pursuit of a failed strategy is evidence that it, not Pyongyang, is the irrational actor.
The Obama administration largely continued the Bush administration’s hardline approach to North Korea, to even worse results. Not only is North Korea closer than ever to producing an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States—its people remain mired in poverty thanks in part to a lack of abundant or reliable electricity. Satellite images show a brightly lit South Korea—one-third of whose power comes from nuclear power plants—casting a glare over an almost entirely dark North Korea.
Washington’s continued pursuit of a failed strategy is evidence that it, not Pyongyang, is the irrational actor. Threatening North Korea with military action, as Trump has done, only deepens its leaders’ conviction that they need a sizable nuclear deterrent to protect themselves. By contrast, promising not to attack—and helping North Korea gain access to nuclear energy in exchange for limiting its nuclear arsenal and missile development—gives it reason to stop threatening its neighbors and creates a powerful economic incentive for it to cease exporting missiles and other military contraband.
Constructive engagement is critical for achieving peace on the Korean peninsula and, eventually, freedom for the North Korean people. The failure of the United States to impose democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq stands in marked contrast with the gradual, multi-decade transition from dictatorships to democracy by many other nations around the world, from Europe to Latin America to much of Asia.
Indeed, there is no mystery to how peaceful and gradual regime change occurs. Rising prosperity increases popular demands for freedom and inspires the children and grandchildren of hereditary dynasties to loosen their grip on power. South Korea is no exception. Even though it regularly held elections, that U.S. ally was effectively a military dictatorship until 1987, when a national referendum approved a new constitution that allowed direct elections, including that of the president. Between 1980 and 1990, per-capita income nearly quadrupled, from $1,778 to $6,642.
Conservative hawks who seek a military solution to the Korean problem are not the only ones at fault. Liberal doves who oppose nuclear power are equally to blame. Since the Carter administration, Democrats have sought to restrict access to nuclear energy by poor nations and to punish nations such as India and Pakistan that acquired a weapon after the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) was ratified, blocking their efforts to scale up nuclear energy production. Democrats have long sought to prevent nations—even those that have already become nuclear-weapons states—from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel because they fear the separated plutonium might be used for weapons, even though the NPT explicitly gives its signatories the right to do so and reactor-grade plutonium is unreliable for weapons use.
As an outsider, Trump has the opportunity to break from both extremes and finally realize the “Atoms for Peace” vision that U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower outlined at the United Nations in 1953, five months after the end of the Korean War. Eisenhower, a former general deeply committed to alleviating the conditions that lead to military conflict, called for nuclear power development to supply “abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” Working through the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United States provided nations with research reactors and the training to use them, while maintaining oversight of weapons-grade materials.
Given Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea, his moving to open negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom may seem unlikely. Yet he has frequently criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq as well as the Obama administration’s handling of North Korea, and he is a professed supporter of nuclear energy. That industry, despite having significant export potential, is currently struggling for survival in the United States against heavily subsidized renewables and cheap natural gas.
In seeking an atoms-for-peace deal with North Korea, Trump can build on humankind’s successes in reducing the threat of nuclear conflict. Thanks in large measure to an agreement negotiated by another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, the United States and Russia have reduced their total number of operational nuclear warheads from 30,000 in the late 1960s to 1,500 today. The CIA estimates that more than 30 nations have the technical capacity to develop nuclear weapons. Only nine have chosen to do so. In short, for more than 70 years, nations have successfully avoided the use of atoms for war. What’s missing now is the expansion of atoms for peace—on the Korean peninsula and beyond.