BY: ANDY LAUB
Last week, United Nations Political Affairs Chief Ambassador Jeff Feltman arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea for a rare high-level visit to assess diplomatic options. During his meeting with North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, the two “agreed that the current situation [with North Korea] was the most tense and dangerous peace and security issue in the world today.” Ambassador Feltman, for his part, emphasized the need to reopen diplomatic channels to “reduce the likelihood of a miscalculation.” Jeff Feltman is a former high-ranking official with the U.S. Department of State, having served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. However, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert was quick to clarify that Feltman was neither carrying the message of the United States nor were his actions representative of their policy towards North Korea on this trip.
The situation now on the Korean peninsula has become more tense, as both Kim Jong-Un and President Trump continue to trade insults while North Korea launched one of its most successful missile tests on November 29, 2017 with an intercontinental ballistic missile both capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching the United States. Consequently, the United States and South Korea came together in the strongest demonstration of military might through the joint drills with South Korea, which drew ire from North Korea. The one thing that remains certain as tensions escalate is that North Korea’s capabilities are improving at a faster pace and the policy of maximizing pressure through added sanctions is not working. It is clear that the best option for U.S foreign policy is to pivot back to diplomacy.
Signs of more active diplomacy have been encouraging as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to his credit, has been making a big push with China. The Chinese envoy to North Korea Song Tao, in a rare move last month, visited North Korea in an attempt to facilitate discussions. However, it is unclear what, if any results came out of that meeting. For too long the United States policy has been to put pressure on China, DPRK’s only ally that provides it with 90% of its trade, to leverage its bargaining power to reign them in. This has also largely been ineffective.
As United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutteres said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, “China does not own North Korea, they are their own entity.” Thus, it is critical for the United States to resume direct talks with the DPRK in order to lower the current temperature and eventually clear the way for nuclear disarmament. China can help play a meaningful role in mediating dialogue with North Korea but not much beyond that. Another country worth reaching out to for diplomatic efforts on North Korea is Russia, given their close relationship, trade interests and proximity to the region. They seem to have an interest as they did in the Iran nuclear talks, which helped produce a peaceful outcome.
The United States needs to forsake its position that DPRK abandon its nuclear weapons program as a pre-condition for any talks. That is simply not going to happen as it is in North Korea’s constitution to have them as its survival insurance; if the fate of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq once they gave up their nuclear weapons program was any indication, Kim Jong-Un would look to avoid a similar fate. As such, diplomacy is a process that requires long-term action and thinking outside the box. It is not transactional or a business deal. Therefore, the first step needs to be a dialogue to minimize the urgency of this threat, which can potentially lead to a more well thought out process and a step towards denuclearization. These negotiations will not be the same as with Iran since Iran did not possess nuclear weapons at the time, whereas North Korea does. Diplomacy in this case will begin with crisis prevention, the framework for which should be a freeze for a freeze type of interim solution. In this scenario, North Korea would agree to temporarily halt the production of its ballistic missile program in return for the United States and South Korea putting a hold on their military drills. This is the most realistic option that can pave the way for longer-term talks, although there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite especially by the United States to do so.
Ultimately, diplomacy is a two way street and in order to come to the table, both sides need to show gestures of good faith to build trust and to have a meaningful dialogue. Critics will point to the failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, which the DPRK did not adhere to as well as the failure of the six party talks under the Bush administration. However, now the crisis is more imminent. There is no good military option that doesn’t risk thousands of deaths on the South Korean side of the border. It is in the United States’ best interest to pivot back to diplomacy since no other viable options exist.
Andy Laub is a Masters student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, he also serves as the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.