Sooner or later, the United States will either be in negotiations with North Korea or at war with North Korea. Given the unacceptable consequences of war, it is long past time to get realistic about diplomacy. That means not just exploring whether talks are worth trying, but also clarifying what each party would have to accept, and concede, in order to give diplomacy a chance to work.
The U.S. debate about policy options toward North Korea has long suffered from a lack of candor, on all sides. Calls for military strikes are based on the fallacy that Pyongyang can’t be deterred, a rationale offered by U.S. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, among others. Pleas for diplomacy, meanwhile, rarely address the serious obstacles that make talks more likely to fail than to succeed. And claims that pressure will force North Korea to give away its prized nuclear arsenal are similarly unrealistic.
Policymakers must face the facts. There are no acceptable U.S. military options involving a first strike, given the inevitable retaliation and mass casualties that would follow, and North Korea is not handing over its nuclear weapons anytime soon. Yet keeping the peace will ultimately mean making diplomacy work. A “freeze for freeze” agreement (in which Pyongyang stops missile and nuclear tests and Washington stops military exercises with South Korea) could help get both sides to the negotiating table. But even that would mark just the beginning of a thorny diplomatic process—one that would inevitably demand wrenching choices and considerable political sacrifice.
THE PERFECT AND THE GOOD
North Korea may not be interested in talking until it feels assured that it has what it needs for deterrence—namely, the ability to place a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the continental United States (as of this writing, a capability it may or may not have). Yet Washington must convey that it is ready to talk anytime and anywhere, without preconditions and with
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