North Korea: Let’s take a break from making threats and see if a deal can be made

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
When the person talking for the United States is the current incumbent president, and the person he is talking to is the strange North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, perhaps the general talking-is-better rule needs to be invoked cautiously and with eyes wide open.

According to me, talking is generally better than fighting, especially if the talking might make the fighting unnecessary.

Perhaps there are exceptions. The Munich accords between England, France and Hitler in 1938, were supposed to avoid war with Germany. It didn’t work and, in retrospect, only allowed Hitler to get stronger in time for the war that started the following year anyway. It’s the classic case where less talk, more action would probably have led to a better result.

When the person talking for the United States is the current incumbent president, and the person he is talking to is the strange North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, perhaps the general talking-is-better rule needs to be invoked cautiously and with eyes wide open.

But, based on what we know at the moment, I favor U.S.-North Korean discussion of how to lower tensions and perhaps even provide incentives for North Korea to limit or even give up its nuclear weapons program. I wouldn’t guarantee, nor do I expect, a happy ending. I don’t know whether the talks will even occur. But I’m in the camp of let’s take a break from making threats and Let’s Make a Deal, or at least see if there’s a deal to be made that includes non-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

And if a deal is made, remember Ronald Reagan’s slogan: Trust but verify.

Five related thoughts:

Thought 1: I specifically am opposed to the argument that President Trump should not meet with Kim because just having the meeting is some kind of “reward” that Kim doesn’t deserve that would serve to “legitimize” Kim’s rule over North Korea. This strikes me as ludicrous and roughly the equivalent of threatening to hold your breath until you get what you want.

If talks fail and Kim instead decides to hoot “ha ha. I got you to talk to me, and you got nothing out of it and now I am legitimate,” I believe he will succeed in convincing no one of his enhanced legitimacy. On the other hand, any American who thinks Kim’s rule in North Korea would be undermined by a U.S. refusal to talk to him, they are kidding themselves.

If talks could persuade Kim to give up his nukes, that would be wonderful.

Thought 2: Although some in Washington seem to suffer delusions to the contrary, the United States has no legal authority to decide which nations of the world are allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability. This should be obvious, but if you listen to much of the rhetoric, at least within our country, you might think otherwise.

Since the United States became the first to acquire (and, still, the only one to use) nukes — or “atom bombs,” in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the list of nuke-possessing states has grown to nine (if you count Israel, which chooses not to confirm that it has them). South Africa also had nuclear capability but gave it up, the only real example where that was managed.

Thought 3: If the United States were to attack North Korea without a U.N. Security Council authorization to do so, it would be massive violation of international law. Of course, the United States fairly often attacks other countries without U.N. authorization, but these actions pretty much always violate the U.N. Charter, to which the United States is a signatory.

North Korea is under a similar obligation. And, by the way, North Korea was a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would have made its acquisition of nuclear weapons capability illegal (in the sense of being a violation of an agreement to which they were a party). But North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Views differ on whether it had a right to do so.

Thought 4: Don’t assume that the Trump/Kim talks will occur at all. Trump said, perhaps with the usual advance thought he gives to things he says, that he would do it. He says stuff all the time and takes it back or contradicts it soon after. Yesterday the White House put out various reservations and preconditions that could be used to renege.

Thought 5 … is perhaps familiar to long-time readers of Black Ink, as I’ve written about it before. The creation and disintegration of nation states is much flukier than we sometimes allow ourselves to realize. Many of them don’t make as much sense as we might prefer to believe. (Remember Yugoslavia?) But once a nation comes into existence, we tend to act as though its existence had been decreed by God in Eden and is destined to last forever.

In fact, there is no good reason for a nation-state of North Korea to exist (and the world, and the people of North Korea, would be better off if it didn’t). Korea makes perfect sense as a nation, united by language, culture, ethnicity and history. But North Korea had no history as a separate nation before 1945, and the separation of Korea into North and South Korea was never intended to last more than a few weeks or months.

As the World War II alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union were liberating Korea from Japanese control at the end of World War II, an arbitrary – really, really ridiculously arbitrary – line was drawn on a map by an American colonel with the wonderful name of “Tick” Bonesteel, with the understanding that the Soviets would would liberate the portion of Korea north of the line and the Americans would liberate the portion south of the line until the war ended and then Korea would be one country with no line in the middle. Sadly, it didn’t work out.

I’ve written before how this why-there-are-two-Koreas fluke came about, and refer you to this link for the tale, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

What fools these mortals be.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/13/2018 - 10:30 am.


    It’s refreshing to see a straightforward discussion of North Korea.

    I expect discussions to go nowhere as long as the U.S. insists North Korea abandon the nuclear weapons it has worked so long to obtain.(South Africa’s situation in ’89 was nothing like North Korea’s today.) On the other hand, Trump has been so adamant about disarmament, I’m afraid he’s incapable of backing off of that.

    I was born in the middle of the Korean War and it seems I will die with the conflict still in progress.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/13/2018 - 10:49 am.

    Give the American people a break….

    Let us take a break from making “deals” with North Korea that cannot be verified and never have been enforced.

    Let us take a break for making “deals” with North Korea that just provide political adulation from the press for the President and no criticism when the deals are never kept.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/13/2018 - 11:02 am.


    Like many a suburb (and county) in Minnesota and other states, North Korea doesn’t really have a reason to exist as a separate entity, not that that would inhibit its current ruler. Given the lack of thought that goes into many of the Current Occupant’s pronouncements, I share the anxiety of many over a face-to-face meeting, especially if it’s on video and difficult to walk back whatever gets said.

    Still, and particularly given the temperaments of the two purported “leaders” of their countries, talk still seems preferable to action. While I’d much prefer a North Korea without nuclear weapon capabilities, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to come about. Diplomacy – if allowed to work – is often, maybe even always, the better choice when the alternative is an exchange of missiles.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/13/2018 - 11:35 am.

    “Enhanced legitimacy”


    But the North Korean population has already seen a version of this: in a five-part propaganda series [first shown in 1988] with this exact same triumphant ending.

    “North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years … Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, after Trump’s announcement. He believes the aim of the meeting is to elevate North Korea on the world stage, rather than to discuss disarmament, as Trump hopes.

    “This is literally how the North Korean film The Country I Saw ends,” Lewis wrote. “An American President visits Pyongyang, compelled by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs to treat a Kim as an equal.”

    (end quote)

    Enhanced legitimacy in front of his people. Enhanced legitimacy in other parts of the world.

    While I hope for the best, all I can think of is Trump “resolving” the middle east issues by declaring the US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem. All of the bluster, none of the work.

    This is just the opening move in a long game, where one of the parties has no grasp of the history or the issues or the patience and detail-orientation to work for a good solution.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/13/2018 - 01:41 pm.

    Reasons why the Trump/Kim meeting are dangerous, high-stakes gambles that may make war more likely.

    From Victor Cha (the guy who was going to be South Korea ambassador but was passed over because of his opposition to the “bloody nose” option)

    Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.
    (end quote)

    And there are those hawks who want it to fail:

    From John Bolton–notred hawk:

    “How do you know the North Koreans are lying? Because their lips are moving,” John Bolton explained to Fox News last week. The former UN ambassador went on to argue that Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un was a positive development – because, as Cha warns, it could accelerate the breakdown of diplomacy and the onset of military action to combat the North Korean threat.

    Bolton further suggested that unless Kim Jong-un agrees to tell Trump “what ports American ships should sail into, what airports American cargo planes can land at” so that the United States can load his “nuclear weapons program onto those as soon as beginning next week” – and, also, to step down as leader of North Korea, and “go live in a villa on the seashore of China for the rest of [his] life” – Trump should reject any deal Pyongyang puts on the table.

    If rumors are true, this man [Bolton] will be the highest ranking national security adviser in the White House come May.

    (end quote).

    The article makes a very good point on why Kim would agree to any disarmament when Trump is tearing up the Iran nuclear deal that same month.

    You have to also consider that Trump can claim after a failed (or not achieved) meeting that he did everything he could and now is the time for the war-birds to fly. It’s a very “brinksmanship” thing to do. He’s looking for something that he thinks will have no cost and free him from domestic concerns.. He tried his best, after all….

  6. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2018 - 04:57 pm.

    What Deal?

    Does North Korea have any incentive to make a deal to disarm? The Kim regime likely sees possessing nuclear weapons as its best security. North Korea is safe from invasion as long as it has a nuclear deterrent (the chances that it would win a conventional war are pretty slim, so best not to let one get started). Outside of a few tough-talking poseurs in the Trump administration and some foolishly bellicose MAGA types, there is little appetite for an invasion that would lead to a nuclear retaliation. Why give up that level of protection?

    Assuming that the Trump Administration could come up with enough positive incentives, why would North Korea trust the US to follow through? The Iranian example would be enough to raise suspicions. There, the agreement was duly negotiated and the Iranians are complying with the letter of it. The Trump Administration wants to abandon it, supposedly because Iran is not doing more than it is required to do. It’s an absurd way to read any agreement, so it’s only reasonable to conclude that Trump wants to get rid of it because it was something Obama did. This sort of dysfunctional domestic comedy would make anyone leery of American intentions. Why make an agreement if it’s just going to be torn up in a few months?

    If the talks happen–and I’m not staking any money on this, either way–the remarkable thing is that they happen. Perhaps the key is to keep expectations low, and be grateful for any meeting that doesn’t end with missiles being launched.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 03/14/2018 - 09:28 am.

    The only reason N. Korea

    is willing to talk was their threats were met with sanctions and a message that any attack would be met with force. The Kim’s are used to their rattle sabering being met with capitulation and a backdown of some sort from America. Remember when Bill Clinton gave them billions to build a “green energy economy “, that money was used to build their nuclear program. I agree that America has to go into the meeting very cautious and have the ability to verify every aspect of any agreement. The Obama administration went into the Iran nuclear deal intent on getting any deal they could and ended up putting over 100 billion in cash on pallets (wire transfers don’t work anymore) delivered at night, having restrictions of verification on certain military sites, secret deals no one can read held by the U.N. and a total capitulation to Iran.
    Talking is at least a start. Capitulation has never worked and won’t work here. Years ago when the local bully in 2nd grade demanded your milk money (2 cents a day a dime for the week) and you gave it to him, he didn’t stop taking. When his demand was met with a punch in the mouth, he thought twice about it and left you alone. You really do learn everything you need to know about life in grade school!!

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/14/2018 - 11:12 am.

    Just to make an observation…

    The US media coverage of this potential meeting seriously betrays a media desire to get back into a comfort zone at the expense of serious analysis.

    Sure, talking would be great, it might have shut down N. Korea’s bomb programs decades ago if someone had tried it. But that’s not going to happen now.

    N. Korea IS a nuclear power, they have the “bomb” so no talks of any kind can prevent what has already happened.

    Everything we know about N. Korea tells us that having become a nuclear power, they will not get rid of their nuclear weapons. They didn’t do all this just to smash it all up because an American President finally agreed to talk to them. Anyone who thinks Jong-un built his weapons simply to use as a chip to be bargained away is living in an alternate universe of some kind.

    Any casual observer who has spent any time at all tying to understand Kim Jong-un could tell you that his invitation to enter into talks is about meeting a US president at the table as an equal who can make demands, not a subordinate willing to make concessions. THAT was the whole point of obtaining nuclear weapons in the first place.

    The US media narrative thus far is simply bizarre. All we’re hearing about is Trump’s reaction, and the fall-out, and blah blah blah. Well, THAT’S the return to “normalcy” that represents the old comfort zone for US journalists. That narrative is bizarre because it ignores the obvious fact that it’s Jong-un, not Trump who has taken the initiative here. Trump has no initiative, he’s playing catch-up, he wasn’t the one who suggested direct talks.

    The advantage to having the initiative is that it puts Jong-un ahead of the wave, and keeps Trump behind the curve. That’s all that matters.

    The most predictable and likely outcome is that these “talks” will never happen. Trump has already said through his spokespeople that a precondition for direct talks is that Jong-un take concrete actions to dismantle his nuclear program. That’s not going to happen, hence no talks.

    What Jong-un gets out of this is the public relations victory of having been the one to have taken the initiative to invite negotiations, he can now claim to be the peace-maker, whether Trump ever shows up or not. In fact, it’s almost better for Jong-un if Trump never shows up. Jong-un is likely to try to parlay his initiative into a direct talks with S. Korea that exclude the US, and seek unification or a peace treaty that removes US forces from S. Korea.

    All this talk about what Trump is doing, or could do, or would talk about, blah blah blah is simply a wast of time because the ONE thing that is clear at this point, is that now that N. Korea is a nuclear power, Trump is basically irrelevant. Jong-un will make this invitation, Trump will end up refusing, and Jong-un will move on.

    Anyone who’s taken the time to look into this knows that Jong-un has two objectives, the first is getting a declaration from the US that we will never initiate nuclear war against N. Korea by using nukes first. The second is the removal of US military forces from the peninsula. These are long standing and durable NK objectives dating back decades. Jong-un is NOT interested in discussing his nukes. The truth is that if Trump were to show up to a meeting thinking he’s going discuss NK nukes instead of NK demands, that could actually end up being very dangerous meeting because it’s likely to end in escalating threats and counter threat that could provoke a military exchange. That’s probably why Tillerson was so apposed to the meeting in the first place.

    You don’t see ANYONE in the US media discussing these facts. Doesn’t that tell us more about the media than it does Trump and Jong-un?

  9. Submitted by Howard Miller on 03/21/2018 - 01:31 pm.

    Where’s the beef?

    It has been more than a week since Trump agreed to meet North Koreans face-to-face without talking about it with wise US citizens before he chose that option.

    Has there been a whisper of preparation for those meetings discussed in public news reports? How is Trump prepping for those meetings …. by keeping his twitter thumbs well exercised? What else?

    Would it be possible to have someone who actually knows about North Korea in specific detail go with Trump, so he gets facts thrown in his general direction?

    Still no need for a US ambassador to South Korea? Or Germany? Or any of more than 40 other nations lacking a US ambassador assignment?

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