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There’s Still Time for Diplomacy in Korea

John Glaser

Amid ever-heightening tensions over North Korea’s nuclear
weapons program, there are finally some positive diplomatic
signals. On Jan. 3, Pyongyang reopened a long-closed border hotline
with South Korea — one day after Seoul proposed bilateral
negotiations and two days after Kim Jong Un said in his New Year
address that he was open to speaking with the South.

Yet when asked about this possible breakthrough, United Nations
Ambassador Nikki Haley threw cold water on the whole idea:
“We won’t take any of the talk seriously if they
don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North

Haley’s statement is as clear an articulation of the Trump
administration’s foreign policy as you can get: Diplomacy is
a waste of time; we will only talk to adversaries after they
unilaterally capitulate and obey all our commands. The problem is
that this approach is rarely effective. Sure, sometimes diplomacy
fails, but more often than not, blustery intimidation elicits
nothing but bluster and resistance in return.

Consider Washington’s post-World War Two approach to the
Soviet Union. According to the historian Melvyn P. Leffler, there
was “nearly universal agreement” in the military and
intelligence communities that the Soviet Union, though
expansionist, “was by no means uniformly hostile or unwilling
to negotiate with the United States.” Yet, in contrast to the
internal consensus, Leffler cites U.S. officials increasingly
depicting Moscow as “constitutionally incapable of being
conciliated” and hell-bent on “world

In July 1947, a War Department intelligence report found the
Truman administration’s more confrontational approach
“tend[ed] to magnify the significance of conflicting points
of view, and reduc[ed] the possibility of agreement on any
point.” According to Leffler, this “had resulted in a
more aggressive Soviet attitude toward the United States and had
intensified tensions.”

Nothing about the current
situation on the Korean peninsula forces us to take an exclusively
hardline approach. Only pride, honor, and terribly wrong ideas
about diplomacy prevent a more sensible approach.

By contrast, history is replete with examples of tactful
statecraft successfully yielding major concessions from

Although the Cuban missile crisis had for decades been
misrepresented as an example of a steely-eyed American president
staring down a retreating Soviet Union, the truth was later
revealed in declassified documents. John F. Kennedy secretly
offered to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey, while Russia’s
Nikita Khrushchev agreed to take the missiles out of Cuba in
exchange. Nuclear war was averted through diplomacy and mutual

President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran was successful
because it followed this diplomatic model. For years, Washington
approached Iran with obstinate condemnations, extreme demands, and
little interest in serious negotiations. This all-sticks-no-carrots
posture resulted in stubborn hostility on both sides and an
expanding Iranian nuclear program. Only when the Obama
administration conceded Iran’s right to peaceful civilian
nuclear enrichment and offered sanctions relief did Tehran agree to
major restrictions on its nuclear program. This resulted in what
Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency,
describes as “the world’s most robust nuclear
verification regime.”

So why is Trump ignoring his predecessor’s example? A
popular argument against the prospect of rapprochement with North
Korea is that we tried diplomacy in the 1990s and Pyongyang took
advantage of American overtures and failed to live up to its

But that is an incredibly misleading representation of the 1994
Agreed Framework. Negotiated by the Clinton administration, the
Agreed Framework froze Pyongyang’s plutonium pathway to a
nuclear bomb and opened its program up to inspections in exchange
for economic and diplomatic concessions from Washington.
Unfortunately, according to Stanford University’s Siegfried
S. Hecker, many in Congress opposed the deal and “failed to
appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the
United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the

Pyongyang took this as a signal that it needed a back-up plan.
Early in the George W. Bush administration, which took a markedly
tougher line from the start, U.S. intelligence found Pyongyang was
secretly developing uranium enrichment capabilities, which violated
the spirit, though not the letter, of the Agreed Framework. The
Bush team pulled out of the deal in response, prompting Pyongyang
to expel international inspectors.

In 2002, Bush put North Korea in the infamous “Axis of
Evil”, which strongly implied a future regime change effort.
Pyongyang soon after withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty and only a few years later, the Kim regime tested its first
nuclear weapon.

Diplomatic efforts have a better track record, even with North
Korea. North Korea tends to respond to toughness and attempts at
coercion with its own set of belligerent policies. However, over
the past 25 years, according to a study by the Center for Strategic
and International Studies, periods of diplomacy correlate with a
reduction in North Korean provocations. Simply put, the Trump
administration’s central premise on North Korea is wrong.
More threats and pressure won’t elicit surrender from
Pyongyang. In fact, the estimated costs of war are so
catastrophically high that military threats at this point are
probably not credible. The CIA assesses “no amount of
economic sanctions will force the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un,
to give up his country’s nuclear program.”

Diplomatic options are readily available. Americans involved in
low-level discussions with North Korea have repeatedly said
Pyongyang is willing to negotiate. Russia and China have long
insisted that the best first step to constructive diplomacy is an
initial “freeze for freeze” agreement, in which
Pyongyang would agree to freeze its weapons testing in exchange for
a halt to all U.S.-South Korean military exercises. While U.S.
military commanders do not support a total freeze, South Korea has
suggested postponing some exercises until after the Olympics. In
addition, Washington could easily halt its provocative — and
superfluous — overflight operations near North Korea.

The exact outlines of a deal would have to be defined at the
negotiating table, when each side can communicate its own
expectations and flexibility. But the United States has wide
latitude to satisfy North Korean security concerns, including
offering an end to what Pyongyang calls Washington’s
“hostile policy,” sanctions relief, or even a reduction
in U.S. troop levels in South Korea. The latter may appeal to
China, which could motivate a more constructive Chinese approach to
the North Korean problem.

Nothing about the current situation on the Korean peninsula
forces us to take an exclusively hardline approach. Only pride,
honor, and terribly wrong ideas about diplomacy prevent a more
sensible approach.

John Glaser is
director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a
libertarian think tank based in Washington DC.