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.

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.