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In our opinion: Talking with North Korea is good, but action is better

Talks with North Korea historically carry little weight

South Koreans watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's address, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. The part of letters on the bottom "South Korea and U.S., Nuclear War exercise." a
South Koreans watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's address, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018.
Lee Jin-man

A recent high-level meeting between North and South Korea seemed to yield positive results, including the promise of ongoing meetings on substantive matters. In the short-term, the north will field teams and send cheerleaders and journalists to the upcoming Winter Games in South Korea.

Talk is good, but of course action is better. Participation in the Olympics does not mean North Korea will be any less of a threat to world peace, or that Kim Jong Un has any intention of scuttling his nuclear weapons program.

History has shown that talks and agreements with North Korea carry little weight. In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter secured a deal in which North Korea agreed to end its nuclear program in return for aid. That accomplished little, nor did it deter North Korea’s push for nuclear weapons.

In that context, President Trump’s foolish tweets concerning the size of his nuclear button, and his insults toward Kim Jong Un, are likely little more than childish rants, no more or less effective against Kim’s regime than high-level talks, or than George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in the “axis of evil.”

And yet North Korea, with its persistent and provocative launching of test missiles over and near Japan, and its threats to strike U.S. soil, cannot be ignored. Neither can its persistent anti-American propaganda.

That propaganda is as old as the regime itself. As a 2012 report in the Daily Mail made clear, children in North Korea begin learning in kindergarten that they have two enemies in life — Americans and the Japanese. In one school, reporters were shown a life-sized dummy of an American soldier, which was for children to beat with batons or stones.

And yet despite this behavior, Kim is not insane, at least according to the considered opinion of U.S. intelligence officials.

Yong Suk Lee, the deputy assistant director of the CIA’s newly created Korea Mission Center, told a Washington audience in October that Kim does not want an armed conflict with the United States. What he wants is the clout necessary to eventually remove the United States from the Korean peninsula.

In other words, Kim may be brutal and unfeeling toward the suffering of his own people, but he isn’t suicidal. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a threat to peace and stability in the region and beyond.

And like Saddam Hussein and other brutal and vexing dictators, he seems to be mastering the art of violating past agreements while dangling the promise of new high-level talks.

As previous presidents have learned, this is a problem without easy answers. Certainly, cooperation from China is important, and its recent decision to clamp down on trade with North Korea in honor of U.S. sanctions was a good move.

It isn’t likely to move a dictator who seems unmoved by the suffering of his own people, however.

But, given North Korea’s proximity to South Korea and its apparent nuclear capabilities, the best option, unsatisfying though it may be, is to talk.

President Trump has encouraged north and south to talk. An international summit on North Korea’s nuclear threat, scheduled for Canada this week, was expected to be muted in deference to the ongoing outreach. Certainly, the decision to reopen a military hotline between the two nations cannot hurt.

However, real change isn’t likely to come without regime change. Bringing that about by military means likely would unleash an unacceptable level of carnage.

The next best option, then, is containment through negotiation, as frustrating as that may be.