After the Olympics, Where Do We Stand on North Korea?

Men carry flags in front of the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

It is important to keep engaging North Korea. The question is: how?

Nuclear safety would be good a choice. It is indeed correct that if U.S. or South Korean officials bring up CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament) right away, the North Koreans will walk out. But hawks are also correct to worry that the North Koreans will try to hijack any summit for prestige purposes (the South Korean supplicant coming to the North), or deflect any talks toward less important issues like inter-Korean projects or family reunions (an emotionally-laden carrot Pyongyang likes to dangle for concessions). It is important to keep any meetings in the nuclear policy space.

Safety does that. It is related to the Northern nuclear program, but not immediately about the weapons. It responds to a genuine concern. One can only imagine how a country as corrupt, backward, and dysfunctional as North Korea monitors its reactors, handles waste, insures materials are not stolen, and so on. We already know that the main North Korean test site recently suffered a tunnel collapse which killed two hundred people. It is hardly an exaggeration to worry that a Chernobyl-style incident might occur as the Northern programs grows. And given that most of North Korea’s nuclear program is near China (to keep it as far away from U.S. airpower as possible), the Chinese would likely also be interested in this topic. Any nuclear incidents in North Korea would likely affect them immediately.

There is the obvious downside that discussing nuclear protocols and maintenance with Pyongyang seems to implicitly recognize the nuclear program. This will be a bitter pill for the United States to swallow. But CVID is a nearly impossible goal at this point—barring the use of force. At least if we are talking about safety and maintenance, we are still engaging the North in the nuclear space. If this is successful, perhaps we can build toward nuclear constraints and controls.

Robert Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing can be found at his website. He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.

Image: Men carry flags in front of the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo​

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