Can Trump and Moon Quell North Korea's Saber Rattling?

Kim Jong Un reacts with Ri Pyong Chol and Jang Chang Ha during a test launch of ground-to-ground medium long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-10 in this photo released June 23, 2016.

The United States can achieve denuclearization through stages.

Over the last few months, we have heard the Trump administration voice the same worn out foreign policy that we have heard from previous administrations. There are the usual carrots: we remain open to negotiations as long as North Korea makes concessions; or sticks: “if China doesn’t solve the problem, we will”, and “the sword stands ready.” Where is a potentially new and more proactive solution? Could the upcoming summit meeting between President Trump and South Korean president Moon produce an opportunity for the two leaders to coordinate and eventually strike a deal with North Korea?

In 2014, my late husband, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, who had negotiated with the North Koreans for over two decades said, “To continue to demand that North Korea demonstrate that they are prepared to negotiate seriously about an end to their nuclear weapons program before we will again talk with them means that we are likely to do nothing.”

Publicly and privately Steve would say we know that North Korea’s goal is “regime survival.” So far, sanctions have not worked, waiting for the regime to collapse has not worked, threats of military action have not worked and cutting off relations has not worked. In fact, the North began to make strides on their nuclear capability during the time we were not engaged. And although China has influence on North Korea, it has its own interests—preventing Pyongyang’s collapse and the creation of a unified Korea with U.S. troops on its border—and less influence on the country’s political and international policy than one might think.

Steve had a history of working with dictators in trouble spots and in dealing with difficult diplomatic challenges: in Panama during riots over the Panama Canal; Franco in Spain during the Cold War; the Arab oil embargo of 1973–74; as the U.S. representative in the creation of the International Energy Agency; as ambassador to Tunisia (1979–82) during president-for-life Habib Bourguiba’s reign; as principle deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America during unrest in Central America; and as ambassador to the Philippines (1984–87) during the Marcos era, the People Power Revolution, the election of Corazon Aquino and the ousting of President Ferdinand Marcos.

Having successfully dealt with tough diplomatic assignments, my husband found a new challenge when he agreed in 1995 to be the first director of an innovative multilateral consortium, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, founded by the United States, South Korea and Japan. Its main task was to implement of the 1994 Agreed Framework that was signed by the United States and North Korea. In that arrangement, North Korea agreed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear facilities intended to produce bomb-making material, while the United States agreed to provide Pyongyang with two multi-billion dollar nuclear-power reactors and to move towards the normalization of diplomatic relations.

Cynicism on both sides led to the agreement’s eventual collapse, proving that it is hard to erase over forty years of hostility overnight. North Korea hedged against the possible failure of the agreement with a uranium-enrichment program. Congress undermined U.S. efforts to implement the agreement while many in Washington, DC hoped for the collapse of the North Korean regime. However, as Steve noted in 2013, “it was the first sustained diplomatic engagement with the DPRK since the end of the Korean war,” and “we enjoyed eight years in which North Korea produced no plutonium.”

When Steve left his post as ambassador to South Korea in 2001, he was concerned when the George W. Bush administration ended President Clinton's North Korea policy. He was further concerned by the administration’s act of stopping implementation of the Agreed Framework in 2002 in response to North Korea’s cheating, but reassured by its decision to begin the Six-Party Talks in 2003. Despite North Korea’s successful nuclear test in 2006, a joint agreement was signed in 2007, and like the 1994 arrangement, it included provisions to begin a process of normalizing diplomatic relations and a peace treaty. Meanwhile, the North Koreans agreed to freeze their capability to produce plutonium. Again, time passed, skepticism and distrust on both sides grew, and progress made was undermined.

From 2009 to 2011, Steve decided once again to tackle the North Korea problem when he accepted the job as U.S. Special Representative to North Korea Policy in the Obama administration. He “was puzzled” by the North Korean refusal to accept what he believed could have been the beginning of a less hostile relationship with the United States. But, he also knew that Pyongyang’s “dangerous and provocative manner” reflected the reality that the regime was undergoing a transition. Kim Jong-il had suffered a stroke in 2008 and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was beginning to solidify power as his successor. That succession came in 2011 after Kim Jong-il’s death. Frustrating delays by both countries led Steve to believe that the “timing was off.” Again, the problem was “sidelined” as the Obama administration focused on what it saw as more pressing international issues.

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