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South Korea Can Save the Nuclear Talks

After Hanoi, Back to Seoul

Trump and Kim shake hands at the start of the summit in Hanoi, March 2019. KCNA

The failure of the U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi has put diplomacy on the back foot. Even a small deal would have been better than no deal at all. But the “maximum engagement” strategy that U.S. President Donald Trump initiated a year ago remains the best approach. For the first time in a decade, when it comes to U.S.-North Korean relations, the arrows are pointing in the right direction: toward reduced risks, confidence building, political normalization, economic integration, and, in the end, denuclearization and peace. The United States, South Korea, and North Korea need to keep the process going. After a failed summit attempt, you can’t hide in your tent. You wait out the bad weather, and then start climbing again.

Disappointment over Hanoi should not obscure an encouraging fact: for the first time in a long while, the governments of the United States and North Korea are negotiating in good faith. Team Trump and Team Kim are looking for practical ways to make serious progress toward peace, normalization, and denuclearization. Since early 2018, they have made a series of compromises. The most significant has been the suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and U.S.-South Korean large-scale joint military exercises. Trump administration officials have probably had as many or more conversations with their North Korean counterparts in one year than Obama administration officials did in two terms. Add the vast improvement in the quantity and quality of contact between Seoul and Pyongyang and that’s a lot of jaw-jaw to counteract the dangers of war-war.

Trump’s liberal critics have skewered him for legitimizing a brutal dictator. But they seem to have forgotten how close Bill Clinton was at the twilight of his presidency to holding a summit in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Il. They should heed the words of then-candidate Barack Obama, who in 2008 chided the Bush administration’s foreign policy by arguing, “the notion that somehow not talking to countries

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