It is time for the U.S. to talk to Pyongyang

On his final state visit to Asia in September 2016, Barack Obama issued a statement on North Korea, “To be clear,” the statement declared, “the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”

Exactly a year later, the Hermit Kingdom is, conclusively, a nuclear power. From Bill Clinton’s “Agreed Framework” to George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” to Barack Obama’s “Strategic Patience,” all past strategies have failed to rein in Pyongyang from its nuclear development.

While many people still have trouble accepting North Korea as a member of the nuclear club, Pyongyang has passed the point of no return and the little backward state is building its missile-ready nuclear weapons, firmly and steadfastly. The latest finding from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury University shows that North Korea has not only mastered the production technology of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), the specialized rocket fuel, for its long-range missile launches, but also stockpiled enough UDMH to fight an extended war.

Most North Korea watchers are now pessimistic about the prospects for stopping North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. “Two pathways to a non-nuclear North Korea: disarm them by force, or revolutionary change within,” says Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul, in reality, however, neither scenario is likely to happen.

Once almost unthinkable, North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities are now a reality and here to stay. The window for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula has permanently closed. The North Korean threat “can be managed,” says Jeffrey Lewis at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, “only by ‘accepting the unacceptable’ as a hard fact of life.”

To “accepting the unacceptable” is to acknowledge that “North Korea is not a problem that can be solved,” writes David Kang of University of Southern California, “sanctions and threats have not worked in the past, and more of the same most certainly will not work in the future. As his father and grandfather did, Mr. Kim meets pressure with pressure… The more pressure the United States puts on the North Koreans, the more likely they are to continue perfecting their missiles and nuclear weapons.”

Since it is too late to put the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle, and since everything else has been tried by previous administrations with little avail, the only way left for the Trump administration now is to accept North Korea’s nuclear state status and start direct talks with the Kim Jong-un regime.

That is the Trump administration’s highest-ranking diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is proposing to do. The United States is in direct communication with the Kim regime, Tillerson announced on Sept. 30. “The first time I would have the opportunity to sit with the North Koreans it would be to say what do you want to talk about,” U.S. Secretary of State told reporters in Beijing, “We have a couple of direct channels to Pyongyang. We can talk to them, we do talk to them.” When asked if China was acting as a go-between for negotiations with North Korea, Tillerson responded, “Directly, through our own channels.”

Although President Trump diverged from his Secretary of State on Oct. 1 and tweeted Tillerson was “wasting him time” opening up direct talks with the North Korean regime, the president, as early as in May, already indicated that he was ready to meet with Kim Jong-un “under the right circumstances.” “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump told reporters in an Oval Office interview on May 1.

Traditionally, from Clinton to Bush to Obama, to rely on Beijing to rein in the defiant North Korea has been a major, if not the most important, component of the U.S. policy toward North Korea. The Trump administration, however, may have a different view on China’s role. As Senator John McCain stated recently, “China has not done anything for the last three presidents. I am not sure that they are going to do anything with this one.”

By directly talking with Pyongyang, writes Choe Sang-Hun of New York Times, China will be “left squirming on the sideline, with Mr. Kim having been essentially granted his wish: dealing directly with the United States, which the North believes has the most to give.”

Rather than contemplating military options or an international coalition, Washington has a better, simpler, and much more effective approach in dealing with Pyongyang: Just talk to them.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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