Jaw-Jaw versus War-War: Negotiating a Way out of the North Korea Impasse

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war said Winston Churchill, who led Great Britain during World War II.  Which is reason enough to hope that the interim agreement reached with Iran leads to a permanent settlement.  And that North Korea also eventually joins the normal community of nations.

While prospects of peace with Iran appear better—though the road ahead remains long and rocky—the possibility of a similar accord with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea looks ever further away.  The Kim Jong-un government has reactivated the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and begun new excavations at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.  Moreover, Pyongyang recently detained an aging American visitor, Merrill Newman, poisoning any discussions before they start. 

The best overall approach to the DPRK is to lower expectations.  Pyongyang has proposed nuclear negotiations “without preconditions,” but few observers believe that the North is prepared to give up its nuclear ambitions. 

Thus, Washington should take the Kim regime at its word when the latter opined:  “The legitimate status of the DPRK as a nuclear-weapons state will go on and on without vacillation whether others recognize it or not.”   The U.S. needs to recognize the North’s position de facto if not de jure.

Some would intensify sanctions in response.  However, as I point out in my latest Forbes online column:

the Kim dynasty has withstood not only steadily tougher sanctions but poverty and even starvation.  Absent a dramatic new effort, backed by the Peoples Republic of China, it is hard to believe the outcome of any new penalties would be any different.  To the contrary, the more committed the U.S. appears to be to regime change, the more obvious the case to the North to acquire not just nukes, but many nukes with missiles capable of delivering them to America.

A better strategy would be to defuse the threat environment.  The first step is to loosen rather than tighten the U.S.-ROK alliance.  The end of the Cold War has robbed the Korean peninsula of any claim to being a “vital” security interest for America. 

Moreover, the South’s rise—it now possesses an economy thought to be around 40 times the size that of the DPRK—has eliminated any need for U.S. military support.  Washington should extricate itself from the Korean peninsula’s interminable controversies.

The second step is to turn the lead for security developments on the peninsula over to regional powers.  If the North’s neighbors, including China, were unable to rely on the U.S., they would have to do more themselves. 

The third step for the Obama administration is to deemphasize denuclearization since nuclear negotiations aren’t going anywhere.  Indeed, a small North Korean arsenal is a problem much more for the region than for America.  Washington’s red line should be proliferation to terrorist groups. 

Lastly, Washington should start small-scale engagement with the North, official talks followed by low-key diplomatic relations.  An official relationship wouldn’t eliminate the dramatic differences between the two nations, but would open windows into each other’s societies and channels for contact. 

After six decades Washington should formally conclude the Korean War with a peace treaty?  Negotiation over such a document also would provide another venue for engagement, including South Korea and China.  Talks even could include the most difficult topics, such as human rights. 

Of course, nothing might change.  But there is little downside to opening official discourse, something enjoyed by virtually every other nation.

Frustrations with past efforts to variously conciliate or confront have led to little interest in new approaches toward the DPRK.  Washington should try a different strategy: modest diplomatic rapprochement with the North. 

In the meantime, Washington should emphasize Winston Churchill’s jaw-jaw over war-war.  If that reduced the possibility of conflict even a little bit, it would be a good deal.