Survival under the threat of a North Korean missile strike is like living with the danger of COVID. One takes all precautions, but there’s no guarantee anything will work.
When it comes to what to do about North Korea, the obvious first answer is negotiations, and then more negotiations, and then an agreement of some sort. Looking back on history, all these negotiations have failed to produce lasting deals.
That doesn’t mean, though, we should stop looking. Sure, why not? Christopher Hill, the lead American negotiator on those six-party talks that got nowhere, loved talking about progress until the talks fizzled out and the North went on testing missiles and nukes.
The most optimistic moment probably was the deal reached in 1994 when the U.S. and North Korea agreed on an elaborate “framework” agreement under which the North would give up its nuclear program in exchange for the construction of twin light water reactors for providing nuclear power for the North’s dilapidated electricity network. South Korea would provide $2 billion for the reactors, Japan another $1 billion, while the U.S. shipped 500,000 tons of heavy oil every year to fuel existing power plants until the reactors went online.
That deal fell apart six years later when the North was revealed to be fabricating nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium after shutting down its Yongbyon reactor. The U.S. stopped shipping the heavy oil into North Korea, and North Korea kicked out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who’d been monitoring the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon to be sure it was locked up and not working.
Then the North withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty on the way to conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, the first of two ordered by Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-un, since his father’s death, has ordered four more tests, the last in September 2017 before the sequence in which Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in met at Panmunjom in April 2018 and Donald Trump, in the brightest moment of his presidency, met Kim in Singapore in June 2018. I remember Trump, in a rambling press conference the next day, saying North Korea would begin dismantling its nuclear program right away.
The brief statement, signed by Trump and Kim, promising to work for a “nuclear-free” Korean peninsula, was short of specifics or guarantees but may provide a take-off point for talks. Moon’s understanding with Kim, in three meetings in 2018, came up with a vision of stopping testing and turning the peninsula into “a land of peace.” The great caveat, of course, was Kim’s insistence that the U.S. had to respond in accordance “with the spirit” of his summit with Trump. The “spirit” evaporated at the second Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi in February 2019 when Trump walked out after resisting demands to give up sanctions while Kim balked at shutting down his nuclear program.
These moments in history have been so full of hope and so fraught with disappointment and frustration that it’s possible to see the whole process of dealing with the North as pointless. The best the U.S. and South Korea can do is insist on more talks before doing anything. As a precondition, the North wants to set the terms for coming to the table.
It would be absurd, however, for the Americans to agree on giving up sanctions just to draw the North into talks that would inevitably go nowhere. An end-of-war declaration would be meaningless if North Korea insisted on concessions before even talking about the wording of such a statement. The truce that ended the Korean War in July 1953 was probably the best end-of-war declaration imaginable. It ended the Korean War and has stood the test of time far better than many treaties.
It’s possible to believe the only solution is to vastly improve defenses and be ready to resist any provocation. That course, however, raises the specter of a second Korean War that nobody wants. Is the answer, then, “strategic patience,” similar to the “watchful waiting” advocated by a physician treating a dangerous disease?
The U.S. and South Korea have no choice but to keep calling for talks and hope that China and others will also pressure the North. It’s possible we’ll be asking the same questions next year and the year after – a never-ending story in which hope springs eternal while solutions remain elusive.