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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 the full backing of the president.
The Six-Party Talks—which included North Korea and the United States, along with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—could be revived as a formal coordination mechanism, but the real work would have to be done bilaterally between Washington and Pyongyang. Like the discussions that yielded the Iranian nuclear deal, talks with North Korea should begin in secret, to stave off political pressure for as long as possible. Eventually, the United States should encourage South Korea and Japan to play a supporting role, and it should try to bring China along without relying on it, since Beijing, given its fear of destabilizing North Korea, would likely help just enough to stave off severe U.S. pressure.
Washington must convey that it is ready to talk anytime and anywhere, without preconditions and with the full backing of the president.
Once talks began, the United States would need to make clear what it wants and what it could give up—as well as the fact that it is willing to live with a nuclear North Korea. In reality, the United States has for the past decade already shown that it can do so, although senior U.S. policymakers appear to be incapable of saying so in public. The long-term goal should remain a nuclear-free peninsula—useful both for garnering political support for diplomacy and for maintaining leverage over Pyongyang—but for now, that goal should stay on the backburner. Instead, negotiators should pursue the near-term goal of reducing the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. That would mean focusing on a few plausible accomplishments.
The first of these accomplishments would be to establish channels of communication between U.S. and North Korean senior officials to reduce the risk of conflict in the event of an accident or a crisis. Indeed, such channels have helped defuse past crises, as in 1994, when officials met to secure the release of an American pilot after North Korea shot down a U.S. helicopter. To prevent future mishaps, diplomats from both sides could hold regular, in-person meetings at Panmunjom, a village that straddles the demarcation line between North Korea and South Korea, as well talk via a hotline in special circumstances.
The second goal should be to stop further missile and nuclear tests and development. An immediate freeze would be enough to get talks started, but once negotiations were underway, Washington would have to press for additional arms control measures. Pyongyang would have to agree to stop producing fissile material for nuclear weapons, cap the number of weapons in its possession, and open its arsenal up to an international inspections program (the only mechanism capable of enforcing an arms agreement). For strategic reasons, North Korea enjoys having a degree of ambiguity about its nuclear program, and so it would likely resist this demand. The issue could be put off as others were dealt with first, but ultimately, inspections would be necessary to verify any deal.
The next step would be building a nonproliferation regime to ensure that North Korea could not share nuclear materials or technologies with other countries. Most of the necessary tools exist: for instance, UN Security Council resolutions already give any country the authority to inspect North Korean ships, and the Proliferation Security Initiative, a program launched by the George W. Bush administration to stop nuclear trafficking, facilitates coordination among states. But fundamentally, nonproliferation regimes are imperfect and require rigorous enforcement by governments. The United States, for its part, would have to enhance its intelligence collection to identify and interdict illicit trade with North Korea. And it would have to impose harsh penalties on countries that do business with North Korea, such as Egypt, which was caught buying arms from the country in 2017.
Naturally, North Korea would bring its own set of goals to talks. Chief among them would be international acceptance of its nuclear program, an end to the isolation that has hindered its economic growth, and the boost in stature that would come from high-level engagement with the United States.
In exchange for a U.S. commitment of non-hostility, North Korea would have to offer a commitment of its own. Over the decades, it has attacked U.S. aircraft and personnel, not to mention shelling a South Korean island, sinking a South Korean ship, and abducting Japanese nationals. North Korea would have to pledge to end that behavior, while the United States would have to commit not to attempt regime change. And both countries would have to commit to a “no first use” policy—meaning each would pledge to never be the first to attack the other with nuclear weapons.
The United States should also be ready to halt or significantly reduce the size of the major military exercises it holds with South Korea. It has done so before, cancelling joint exercises in 1994, 1995, and 1996 as a concession to the North Koreans, with no meaningful impact on readiness. Moreover, many exercises already take place on computers and can continue, and altering the real-life exercises would do nothing to weaken the strongest component of U.S. deterrence: the United States’ military presence in South Korea and its pledge to defend the country against a nuclear attack. In exchange for all these changes on the U.S. side, North Korea would have to halt or scale down its own major military exercises.
The United States should also arrange high-level visits and open a U.S. interests section in Pyongyang. Such actions would cost little and give North Korea one of the things it craves most: respect from the United States. Likewise, the United States could publicly recognize the fact that North Korea is a state with a nuclear capacity and could focus in negotiations on issues besides denuclearization, while still keeping denuclearization as the long-term goal.
Sanctions should be ended only gradually and partially. Washington could lift them on sectors such as coal and oil, which affect the basic needs of the North Korean economy, while maintaining those directed at nuclear and missile programs. Over time, more economic engagement could yield additional benefits in slowly opening up North Korea.
The exact combination of concessions offered and demands made wouldn’t become clear until talks got underway. And even if they turned out to be successful, the Korean peninsula would remain divided and tense, and Pyongyang would hold on to its nuclear weapons and its missiles. But there would be verifiable limits to its nuclear weapons program, and both sides would have taken meaningful steps to reduce the risk of conflict. Other big items would remain outstanding—including fully normalized relations and a peace treaty to officially end the Korean war, which would have to wait for denuclearization and changes to the nature of the North Korean regime.
THE WAY THINGS WORK
This approach carries plenty of risks. Pyongyang could cheat. U.S. acceptance of a nuclear North Korea could embolden it to engage in more dangerous activity and sharpen its demands. And U.S. concessions on military exercises could lead China to believe that it could rid itself of the U.S. military presence in Asia.
To address such risks, Washington would have to push other measures at the same time as talks unfold. It should strengthen deterrence capabilities, such as missile defense, and work closely with South Korea and Japan on the diplomatic effort. With advance planning and ongoing coordination, U.S. allies would likely support this approach to negotiations. After all, they want to maintain the alliance with the United States and to prevent a war on the Korean peninsula.
Ultimately, the question is not whether the United States can get everything it wants; it’s whether a deal can secure vital interests. In the case of North Korea, that means protecting the lives of Americans, keeping the peace, securing allies, and containing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Right now, there is still a chance to achieve those basic goals. Pyongyang may be approaching the point of feeling secure enough with the weapons it has, and recent tensions with Beijing gives it reason to reduce its dependence on its long-time ally. Washington, meanwhile, should recognize that failure to respond while questions are asked about whether it would be willing to risk a strike on a U.S. city for the sake of standing up for allies in Asia will erode alliances and create opportunities for China and for North Korea. With time, in other words, the options will only get worse.