Next Stop, Pyongyang? Obama's Diplomatic Trifecta

After Iran and Cuba, diplomacy with North Korea could be next.

North Korea was not officially on the agenda of the just-completed Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. The absence of any reference to North Korea in the summit communiqué is no surprise. But President Obama used the occasion to restate his objectives vis-à-vis Kim Jong-un’s regime, and to signal that the Chinese president and the prime ministers of Japan and South Korea, with whom he met on the margins of the summit for some joint hand-wringing, shared those objectives.

In a scene-setting Washington Post op-ed, the President described his aim as “the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.” The phrasing is, to say the least, diplomatic. It sidesteps the nasty issue of North Korea’s work on intercontinental ballistic missiles. The inclusive reference to the “Korean peninsula” presumably is designed to avoid pointing fingers, even though South Korea has been militarily denuclearized since late 1991, thanks to then president George H. W. Bush’s decision to remove all U.S. nuclear weapons. And the emphasis on “a peaceful manner” is probably welcome in Pyongyang, after calls in the United States for clearer threats of use of force to deter North Korean acquisition of nuclear weapons capable of threatening the U.S. homeland. The president is leaving open the door to a negotiated solution with the North Koreans, even though the history of past attempts is a chronicle of frustration.

I already had been wondering, in fact, whether the administration, with almost ten months left to go in office, would try a dramatic shift in course vis-à-vis North Korea, along the lines of our new relationships with Iran and Cuba. As a devoted fan of Cuban cuisine, I appreciated the President’s reference to ropa vieja in his speech at Havana’s Gran Teatro on March 22. But my thoughts went immediately to bulgogi and kimchi. (I admit my ignorance of specifically North Korean cuisine, assuming such a thing exists.) It struck me that much of what the President had to say in Havana could serve as a blueprint for reconciliation with North Korea as well. One totalitarian state ruled by a family dynasty is much like another, after all.

In Havana, the president admitted the failure of long-standing U.S. policy, an uncharacteristic move for a U.S. political leader: “What the United States was doing was not working. We have to have the courage to acknowledge that truth.” He had taken much the same approach in selling the Iran nuclear deal to the U.S. and international publics. Why shouldn’t we “own” our failure vis-à-vis North Korea in the same way? Is it some sort of second-rate pariah state? After all, unlike the Iranians, the North Koreans actually have gotten all the way to nuclear weapons, and they seem to have missiles with longer ranges. And Cuba had to content itself merely with hosting Soviet nuclear weapons at one point. I’m sure the North Koreans feel some credit is due to them.

Perhaps what was lacking in our approach to North Korea was respect and reassurance. Already in his Havana speech, Obama stated clearly that President Castro “need not fear a threat from the United States,” and implied respect for Cuban sovereignty and self-determination. One could build an argument that we have exaggerated both the Cuban and North Korean threats to us, leading us inter alia to maintain in the Korean Peninsula a vast arsenal of landmines, at considerable political cost to us, since the overwhelming majority of countries have banned them as especially heinous. From 1988 to 2008, we listed North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” though it actually was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts during that period. From 1982 to 2015, Cuba was on the same list, similarly with no real impact. (Of course, the state sponsors list does not have all that much to do with terrorism.) At times, we have accused both Cuba and North Korea of possessing or intending to acquire biological weapons, though always inconclusively. Something else that Cuba and North Korea have in common, though, is a history of being unable to feed their people, and frankly neither has a viable economy. That doesn’t add much to their scariness quotient.