Small Wars Journal

The Basis of Negotiations with North Korea Should be Quiet Old-Fashioned Kissingerian Diplomacy

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 12:35am

The Basis of Negotiations with North Korea Should be Quiet Old-Fashioned Kissingerian Diplomacy

Ehsan M. Ahrari

In the world of Donald Trump, the consummate dealmaker, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s blunt statement to North Korea and its interlocutor China of this morning should be taken as a good opening bid.  What concerns me a little is that North Korea might not take it that way. 

Tillerson is demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, as it promised to do in 1992.  But that was then; and now North Korea is a state possessing nuclear weapons.  Examining the issue from North Korea’s perspective just to understand whether there is any basis for negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, I don’t understand why should it do that?  What guarantees the United States or China could give to North Korea for giving up its nuclear weapons that is more assuring than having those weapons?  I am afraid, I am not coming up with any convincing answers.

Kim Jong Un knows what happened to Saddam Hussein, who wanted to develop his own nuclear weapons, but could not.  He also knows what happened to Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, who voluntarily gave up all aspirations to develop nuclear weapons.

A nuclear armed North Korea might not consider Tillerson’s warning of all options are on the table as too ominous.  Even the potential use of military option is not too scary for North Korea, because it knows the consequences of such an action are too awful for anyone to imagine. 

Kim Jong Un might be open to negotiations with the United States and South Korea about postponing the development of his transcontinental ballistic missiles.  But the price for that is going to be a hefty one in the form of a lot economic assistance and trade deals with South Korea.  And South Korea might be more than happy to oblige under proper guarantees.  Even then, there is no certainty that Kim Jong un will abide by any of his promises. 

But to think for a moment that he would give up his nuclear weapons is sheer wishful thinking.  South Korea knows it, and so do America’s veteran Korea watchers.

I think what is needed at this point is several rounds of quiet diplomacy involving China, United States, and South Korea before approaching North Korea about what is feasible and acceptable to the hermit state. 

China is in an excellent position to guide the American thinking.  So, what is needed here is not the Trumpian art of dealmaking, but the old-fashioned Kissingerian conventional and quiet diplomacy. 

Before we start on this road, the Trump administration has to clearly understand that North Korea is not going to unravel or abandon its nuclear weapons.  I am not sure that even China would want North Korea to do that either.