US and North Korea need to talk, but how?

‘Bet­ter to jaw-jaw than war-war’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

After North Korea’s shock demon­stra­tion that it can strike the Amer­i­can main­land with an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­sile, US of­fi­cials say their fo­cus re­mains on find­ing a diplo­matic so­lu­tion to avert a cat­a­strophic con­flict. But with Washington re­luc­tant to be seen to be re­ward­ing Py­ongyang, whose leader Kim Jong-Un has been taunt­ing the “Amer­i­can bas­tards”, can the two sides man­age to sit down and thrash out their dif­fer­ences face to face?

An­a­lysts and diplo­mats who are vet­er­ans of pre­vi­ous flare-ups in ten­sions be­tween the two coun­tries ac­knowl­edge there are huge ob­sta­cles in the way of talks-not least be­cause they have no diplo­matic re­la­tions. But they also say talks are not only pos­si­ble but re­ally the only vi­able so­lu­tion, whether talk­ing di­rectly or via third par­ties-in­clud­ing se­nior US politi­cians out­side the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “The only way out here is diplomacy,” said James Clap­per, who spent years as a US in­tel­li­gence chief in South Korea and was later Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence un­der Barack Obama.

Don­ald Trump said in May that he would be “hon­ored” to meet with Kim un­der what he called the right cir­cum­stances, in essence de­mand­ing North Korea first halts its nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams. While the US pres­i­dent promised a “pretty se­vere” re­tort to North Korea’s in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ICBM) test, his de­fense sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis’ re­sponse was to echo Bri­tain’s wartime leader Win­ston Churchill fa­mous mantra that it is “bet­ter to jaw-jaw than war-war.” And Kim also ap­peared to leave the door open for talks after Tues­day’s test, say­ing his nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams could be “on the ta­ble” if the US dropped what he called its “hos­tile policy”.

While Py­ongyang has been seek­ing to en­gage Washington in bi­lat­eral talks for decades, Washington has in­sisted on indi­rect and in­for­mal con­tacts. Through the 2000s, a six­party for­mat-in­clud­ing China, Rus­sia, Ja­pan, and South Korea-ap­peared to draw North Korea, then un­der Kim’s fa­ther Kim Jong-il, to­ward some level of out­side nu­clear mon­i­tor­ing and a pos­si­ble slow­down in their pro­gram. But that process col­lapsed in 2009, and since gaining power two years later, Kim Jong-un has dis­missed talks for his de­ter­mi­na­tion to achieve nu­clear sta­tus, as much for his do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal stature as demon­strat­ing the coun­try’s mil­i­tary prow­ess.

Build­ing trust

Since then, con­tacts have been through fo­rums, sem­i­nars in­volv­ing for­mer of­fi­cials, aca­demics, hu­man­i­tar­ian rep­re­sen­ta­tives and at times of­fi­cials act­ing only in a semi-of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity. Such meet­ings can be turgid, with North Kore­ans read­ing off a playlist of po­si­tions be­lieved dic­tated di­rectly by Kim. It takes a lot of work to bridge lan­guage and cul­tural gaps, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who have par­tic­i­pated. Nev­er­the­less, “there’s an abil­ity to build some trust,” said Joseph DeTrani, a for­mer State De­part­ment en­voy to the six-party talks.

And in the past, when the US sought to get North Korea to free Amer­i­cans de­tained as spies or il­le­gal pros­e­ly­tiz­ers, Kim Jong-Il was will­ing to meet and deal with US emis­saries like for­mer pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton and Jimmy Carter, and for­mer UN am­bas­sador Bill Richard­son. Such meet­ings have been rare un­der Kim Jong-Un but he did meet with for­mer bas­ket­ball star Den­nis Rod­man who has been a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to North Korea over the years.

“We had pe­ri­ods when there were agree­ments, that was with Kim Jong-il,” said DeTrani who re­gards Kim Jong-UN as a more “reck­less” leader. Rather than us­ing third par­ties, some voices are push­ing for the US to es­tab­lish semi­for­mal re­la­tions by set­ting up a North Korea In­ter­ests Sec­tion in Py­ongyang, staffed by US diplo­mats, and al­low­ing a North Korean coun­ter­part in Washington. But after a chan­nel is opened, then what?

Iran talks a model?

Scott Sny­der, a Korea ex­pert at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, says the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is that the US can­not ac­cept North Korea’s demand to back off its re­gional mil­i­tary stance pro­tect­ing South Korea and Ja­pan. “The prob­lem is where the North Kore­ans want to go with this is ex­actly the place where we don’t want to go,” he said. Frank Aum, a for­mer De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cial now with the US Korea-Institute at Bal­ti­more’s Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had to adapt by ac­cept­ing-at least in­ter­nally-that it is ef­fec­tively deal­ing with a nu­clear power that needs to be con­tained.

Aum sup­ports in­ten­si­fy­ing the ex­ist­ing ap­proach of ap­ply­ing economic pressure on North Korea via sanc­tions and try­ing to get China to bring its in­flu­ence to bear on Py­ongyang-ar­gu­ing that such tactics helped per­suade Iran to curb its nu­clear pro­gram dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency. “It took three years for sanc­tions on Iran to be­gin work­ing,” he said.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion though is no fan of the Iran nu­clear deal, calling it one of the worst in his­tory. And Scott Sny­der, a Korea ex­pert at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, said the Iran model won’t work be­cause Py­ongyang al­ready has a proven nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity and its lead­er­ship was much more im­mune to out­side pressure. “The regime ben­e­fits from po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion,” he said.


UNITED STATES: A US Air Force B-1B Lancer as­signed to the 9th Ex­pe­di­tionary Bomb Squadron, de­ployed from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, pre­pares for take­off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

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