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.

If my husband were alive today, based on his extensive diplomatic experience in dealing with the North Koreans and with other serious challenges to U.S. interests, he would advise the Trump administration that while “denuclearization must remain our ultimate goal, we will have to get there in stages.” Washington should pursue the strategy of the “three noes” advocated by Dr. Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who had visited North Korea six times to judge their nuclear capability. “First, we should begin by trying to ensure that North Korea does not build any more nuclear weapons . . . Second, we do not want North Korea to develop better nuclear weapons, which means that we do not want them to continue testing and third, we of course want no export of North Korean nuclear weapons and no proliferation of their nuclear technology.”

The second stage, as Steve said at Stanford University in 2014, was to “understand that progress towards denuclearization and ultimately that objective can only be achieved in the context of a broader political approach. It can’t be done on the cheap. We should go back to the joint statement of 2005 from the Six-Party Talks and use it as our starting point. It has four areas of action: denuclearization, energy and economic assistance, the establishment of diplomatic relations, and the replacement of the armistice of 1953 with a peace treaty. Ultimately, if we want to ensure stability on the Korean Peninsula, we have to replace the armistice.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Steve would say, get back to the negotiating table with North Korea, this time bilaterally, working closely with South Korea, and in cooperation with China, Russia and Japan. Holding negotiations with multiple participants—like Six-Party Talks—is too complicated and sacrifices substance for process. As for the substance, based on his decades of experience in dangerous situations, Steve observed in 2013, “Much of diplomacy is rewarding bad behavior. You're trying to figure out how you can stop the worst of the behavior at the lowest possible price.”

North Korea’s latest inhumane act of imprisoning Otto Warmbier, a twenty-two-year-old student, for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a restricted area in his hotel, and keeping him jailed in a coma for over a year, is unconscionable behavior. Nevertheless, we have to stay focused on the pressing issue and daunting task of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The question is: will President Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in be willing to take a new and more proactive diplomatic approach? The June 2017 U.S.-South Korea summit will be an important opportunity for the two leaders to coordinate a strategy to deal with the increasing threat posed by Pyongyang. It is essential that the two close allies, supported by others, such as Japan, seize this moment to forge an approach that emphasizes diplomacy. It is time for serious and tough diplomacy, not military intervention.

Whether this approach will be successful and whether the United States and North Korea will follow through on their commitments is, at this time, an open question. But staying on the current trajectory only guarantees that at some point in the future the two countries will face a stark and unwelcome choice between accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea or war.

Christine Bosworth is the widow of career diplomat Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, who was a three-time career ambassador (Tunisia 1979–82; the Philippines 1984–87; and South Korea 1997–2001). He also served as the executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, a consortium created from the Agreed Framework of 1994 to denuclearize North Korea, and as special representative for North Korea policy for the Obama administration (2009–11).

Image: 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.