A Path Forward on North Korea

Mainstream U.S. media depicts North Korean Kim Jong-Un as crazy and his country as an insane asylum, but there is logic in their fear of “regime change,” a fear that only negotiations can address, says ex-U.S. diplomat Ann Wright.

By Ann Wright

Why are discussions for a peace treaty with North Korea not an option to resolve the extraordinarily dangerous tensions on the Korean peninsula? At long last, experts with long experience with the North Koreans are publicly calling for these negotiations.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Many in Washington’s think tanks finally acknowledge that the Obama policy of “strategic patience,” which relied on sanctions and other pressures to frustrate North Korea, did not result in a slowdown in the nuclear weapon and missile programs, but instead provided room for the North Koreans to expand their research and testing of both nuclear weapon and missile technology.

These experts now acknowledge that the U.S. government must deal with the reality that sanctions have not slowed North Korea’s programs and that negotiations are needed.

William Perry, who was Secretary of Defense from 1994-1997 during talks with the North Koreans that led to an arms control framework, wrote in a Jan. 6 op-ed in the Washington Post that some Western perceptions of the North Koreans as crazy fanatics are false and meaningful negotiations are possible.

Perry wrote: “During my discussions and negotiations with members of the North Korean government, I have found that they are not irrational, nor do they have the objective of achieving martyrdom. Their goals, in order of priority, are: preserving the Kim dynasty, gaining international respect and improving their economy.

“I believe it is time to try diplomacy that would actually have a chance to succeed. We lost the opportunity to negotiate with a non-nuclear North Korea when we cut off negotiations in 2001, before it had a nuclear arsenal. The most we can reasonably expect today is an agreement that lowers the dangers of that arsenal.

“The goals would be an agreement with Pyongyang to not export nuclear technology, to conduct no further nuclear testing and to conduct no further ICBM testing. These goals are worth achieving and, if we succeed, could be the basis for a later discussion of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.”

Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker — an expert on the North Korean nuclear program, emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (U.S. nuclear program), and the last U.S. citizen to see part of the North Korean nuclear program in 2010 — also called for talking with the North Korean government.

A Trump Envoy?

In a Jan. 12 op-ed in the New York Times, Hecker wrote:  “Mr. Trump should send a presidential envoy to North Korea. Talking is not a reward or a concession to Pyongyang and should not be construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea.  Mr. Trump has little to lose by talking. He can risk the domestic political downside of appearing to appease the North. He would most likely get China’s support, which is crucial because Beijing prefers talking to more sanctions. He would also probably get support for bilateral talks from Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow.

President Donald Trump giving his weekly address on Feb. 25, 2017. (Screen shot from Whitehouse.gov)

“By talking, and especially by listening, the Trump administration may learn more about the North’s security concerns. It would allow Washington to signal the strength of its resolve to protect its allies and express its concerns about human rights abuses, as well as to demonstrate its openness to pragmatic, balanced progress.

“Talking will help inform a better negotiating strategy that may eventually convince the young leader that his country and his regime are better off without nuclear weapons.”

John Dulury, in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs in an article titled, “Trump and North Korea-Reviving the Art of the Deal,” said, “If the United States really hopes to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula, it should stop looking for ways to stifle North Korea’s economy and undermine Kim Jong Un’s regime and start finding ways to make Pyongyang feel more secure.

“This might sound counterintuitive, given North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human rights record. But consider this: North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction. And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into Northeast Asia. …

“With Kim now feeling far safer at home (because of economic progress despite international sanctions), the United States needs to help him find a nonnuclear way to feel secure along his borders. A comprehensive deal is the best way to accomplish this, but it will require direct dialogue with Pyongyang.

“Trump should start by holding back-channel talks. If those make enough progress, he should then send an envoy to Pyongyang, who could negotiate a nuclear freeze (and, perhaps, as a goodwill gesture on the part of Pyongyang, secure the release of the two U.S. citizens imprisoned in North Korea). Trump could then initiate high-level talks that would culminate in a meeting between Kim and himself.”

Seeking Talks

The National Committee on American Foreign Policy is attempting to hold informal talks with the North Korean government in this month. Since 2003, the committee has sponsored other talks in Germany and Malaysia. The committee requested the Trump administration to allow the talks to be held on U.S. soil, however, as with the Obama administration, the Trump administration did not issue visas for a North Korean delegation to come to the U.S. due to the continuation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the holding of two Americans in North Korea.

Near the ceasefire line between North and South Korea, President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Camp Bonifas, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Ultimately, a peace treaty is the key to having peace on the Korean Peninsula. Virtually unknown to the American public due to the media blackout on anything positive from North Korea is the North Korean annual request for negotiations for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that was signed to end the Korean War in 1953, sixty-four years ago.

In January 2016, as in many previous years, the North Korean government specifically stated that it would end its nuclear testing if the U.S. and South Korea would end military exercises and sign a peace treaty.  The U.S. responded that until North Korea ends its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. would not talk about a peace treaty. So there is a deadlock.

Yet, it is not rational to think that the North Korean government will stop its nuclear weapons and missile testing until they are guaranteed that the United States will not attack them and has signed a peace treaty to that effect. The North Korean government feels its nuclear weapons program is what is keeping the U.S. from adding North Korea to its list of targeted attempts at violent regime change.

Having seen what has happened to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen under the Bush and Obama administrations, the North Korean government will not give up what it perceives to be its major deterrent to an attack by the U.S. and South Korea — its small but growing nuclear weapons program. (On a personal note for North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un, all he has to recall is what happened to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after they surrendered their arsenals of unconventional weapons.)

And the U.S. is signaling that “regime change” is still its policy. The annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises practiced military operational plans with the mission of the overthrow of the North Korean government. The not-so-subtle title of the 2016 exercises was “Decapitation.”

Dulury, the author of the Foreign Affairs article, suggests that to convince Kim to freeze the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the missile programs, as a first step, the Trump administration must design a package of security guarantees such as scaling back or suspending U.S.-South Korean military exercises and delaying the deployment of new U.S. military equipment such as the THAAD missile to South Korea.

Ending the War

Then, convening four-power talks among China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States to negotiate and sign a treaty formally ending the Korean War, as Pyongyang has long demanded, would provide the basis for halting further development of its nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs and allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country to verify compliance.

Women Cross DMZ walk in Pyongyang, North Korea at the Monument of Reunification (Photo by Niana Liu)

Of course, other issues eventually would be raised such as improving North Korean human rights, relaxing restrictions on travel abroad, allowing foreign humanitarian organizations more freedom in North Korea, and closing political prison camps.

But direct negotiation is the only way to determine what Kim may be ready to do. As President Trump said during the campaign, he would be willing to talk with Kim as long as there was “a ten percent or a 20 percent chance that [he could] talk him out of those damn nukes.”

As Dulury wrote, “Wishful thinking about North Korea’s imminent collapse has compromised U.S. strategy for far too long. Obama’s strategic patience, envisioning a day when ‘the Korean people, at long last, will be whole and free,’ wasted the early years of Kim Jong Un’s reign in the mistaken belief that the regime would not survive long following Kim Jong Il’s death.”

Dr. Hecker agreed: “Talking is a necessary step to re-establishing critical links of communication to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.”

Former Defense Secretary Perry added, “We should deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

North Koreans are very smart and resilient. As well-documented by historians, their country was purposefully destroyed by the United States during the Korean War and they rebuilt it as best they could with minimal outside assistance. Yet, despite virtually no external help for the past 35 years ago – since the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s – and despite expanding international sanctions over the past ten years, North Korea has been able to develop its nuclear program and its missile program and put satellites into space — all, of course, at the expense of funding the level of social and economic programs it would like to have for its citizens.

If the international community really wants to resolve the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and give the North Korean people a chance to rejoin the community of nations, a peace treaty that gives North Korea the assurances it needs for its survival is the first, not the last step.

Ann Wright served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and retired as a Colonel.  She was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years and served in U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia.  She resigned in 2003 in opposition to President Bush’s war on Iraq and in her letter of resignation mentioned the lack of effort of the Bush administration in resolving issues with North Korea. She went to North Korea in May 2015 as a part of the 30-woman delegation of Women Cross the DMZ that held a two day peace conference with 250 North Korean women.  

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21 comments for “A Path Forward on North Korea

  1. Bill Bodden
    March 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    During my discussions and negotiations with members of the North Korean government, I have found that they are not irrational, nor do they have the objective of achieving martyrdom.

    Similarly, on the U.S. side it is a good bet that the leaders in the U.S. government don’t have an object of achieving martyrdom, but I’m not sure about the irrational part.

  2. Bill Bodden
    March 5, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    America’s wars and regime changes from Vietnam to Syria and Yemen have been monumental catastrophes and unmitigated disasters so our leaders and the American people would do well to ponder Einstein’s definition of insanity: Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 5, 2017 at 2:09 pm

      Bill you and I are not on the same page as our U.S. Government. Where we advocate peaceful solutions, our governments military industrial contractors see no ‘profit’ in our philosophy. It’s over used, but reflecting on Eisenhowers January 17 1961 address to our nation to be careful of the Military Industrial Complex, is still worth taking to heart.

      Always good to read your words Bill ….Joe

  3. D5-5
    March 5, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    Perception of the North Koreans is subject to the same demonizing we’re currently seeing over Russia, including every leader of the last twenty years or more in the “mad dog” category. Truth is they are, as Koreans, a proud people who particularly resent being demonized and harassed with the twice yearly show of US-SouthKorea militarism up and down their borders, the sanctions and the rest of it. Time and again they have made clear they want to be treated as equals (and humans) and are willing to talk, desiring to talk, to improve their situation in global relations. But all that cannot be countenanced due the need to house thousands of troops in South Korea as with generally here and there re US globalist ambitions. The North Koreans are a convenient scapegoat so that Trump can use the phrasing “their damn nukes” in a slipshod, stupid manner to suggest the NorKors are to blame for all the tensions.

  4. andoheb
    March 5, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    The US reduced North Korea to near stone age status during the Korean war. Not hard to understand why their leaders feel they must have an effective deterrent to prevent a repeat.

  5. backwardsevolution
    March 5, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    “The North Korean government feels its nuclear weapons program is what is keeping the U.S. from adding North Korea to its list of targeted attempts at violent regime change.”

    Bingo! North Korea, without its nuclear weapons program, would have been toast by now. The North Koreans don’t want to be directed by the U.S. I wonder how things would have been different (maybe not in a good way, though!) if Cuba and Venezuela had have had nuclear weapons. Ditto for Syria, Honduras, Libya, Iraq…..and on and on.

    The U.S.: You need to put down your weapons before we talk.

    North Korea: You need to talk before we put down our weapons.

    • rosemerry
      March 6, 2017 at 3:58 pm

      Notice that never do the USA’s leaders want to make the first (good, positive) move. North Korea was completely destroyed in the “Korean War”, by us, the “good guys”. The South Koreans, our alleged allies have been bossed around, told who to vote for, saddled with thousands of troops and now a destructive base on Jeju island ever since, and we expect the North to “behave reasonably” while we won’t even talk to them!

  6. Zachary Smith
    March 5, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    This is the essence of sensibility. What possible harm can there be in quiet but official conversations with the North Koreans?

    By talking, and especially by listening, the Trump administration may learn more about the North’s security concerns.

    By way of contrast, this next one is simply nuts.

    The U.S. responded that until North Korea ends its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. would not talk about a peace treaty.

    Whoever formulated that “policy” wants the crisis to never end.

    I know very little about the situation with North Korea, and don’t really trust even that bit of “knowledge”, for I’ve been indoctrinated with the US version of the subject since I was in diapers. But with NK possessing nuclear weapons, I fear that if that nation is attacked, the counterattack could very well involve the destruction of Seoul. And possibly some US targets would be attacked as well.

  7. Realist
    March 5, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    Or, if we don’t want to talk with them, why not simply ignore them? Let them trade unmolested with China, South Korea, or whomever they wish without attempting to sabotage their economy. Then see what happens. We can always start a big war with them if they try to attack another country. But who would they attack? They are much smaller and more backward that China, Japan and South Korea. The same logic would apply to them as to Iran: why would the United States presume they are suicidal? Or, is that just another ploy to effect regime change and add another vassal state to America’s retinue? Could this problem really be another case of American aggression more than anything else? Certainly the Kim regime is abominable internally, what with all the executions and assassinations they purportedly carry out, but do we really want to totally destroy another society, as we have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, using the excuse of “R2P?” As Mr. Bodden said up above, when does the insanity stop?

  8. jo6pac
    March 5, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    I agree with everything but one in this article. If I was the leader of this nation or any nation I would never allow one ngo into the nation.

  9. Joe B
    March 5, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    An excellent and timely article by Ann Wright. Indeed the US has not had a rational approach in any area of foreign policy for a long time. In Korea as elsewhere we should have an entirely rational, patient, realistic, and humanitarian policy. Historical circumstances and US carelessness have made a difficult situation that our government of oligarchy puppets and demagogues could never solve. Yet the problem is not unusually difficult for rational decent knowledgeable people to solve over time.

    Knowing that there is a rational humane solution for each problem, does not solve the underlying problem. We don’t have such solutions because our government, mass media, and elections, and even the popular culture, are severely corrupted by money and greed. We must first have amendments to the Constitution ot restrict elections and mass media to limited individual contributions, and to make checks and balances between the branches work as intended. We can’t solve that problem precisely because the tools of democracy are already controlled by economic concentrations.

    So the prior problem is dumping the oligarchy. Aristotle refers to some rare instances where oligarchies split by factions, as we have today, have transitioned to constitutional democracy. For that we must have a supply of uncorrupted political parties able to make ruling coalitions (if you are optimistic), or if you are pessimistic, widespread riots to intimidate the rich (as in the race riots of the 1960s) and enforcement agencies filled with commanders who refuse to suppress the riots.

    But we won’t get there by simply seeing the better path. Education helps build awareness, but it does not get rid of the oligarchy.

  10. John
    March 5, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    Everyone …every nation will be…must be…. choked into the system…..The neo colonialist have failed to send into North Korea massive amounts of illegal immigrants to dilute their sovereignty….I say resist ( unless you choose that system) to the dying breath…..that is the American way!…but that is not the way of the “lets take over the world people by implementing the “Big Banking System”. North Korea is one of the last holdouts from “the system”……The great USA has tried to starve them into compliance…..I say …..may god bless them……

  11. jimbo
    March 5, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    I’m thinking more and more lately of “killing with kindness” as a tactic for peace. Be it with North Korea or Israel with Palestine, bribe your enemy with gifts, generosity, good manners and openness. (And carry a big stick, I guess.)

    • mike k
      March 6, 2017 at 4:58 pm

      Since the US designated itself the sole SUPERPOWER, it feels itself to be above having to talk to anyone or negotiate anything.
      “JUST DO AS WE SAY, OR ELSE!” This is our substitute for diplomacy.

  12. mike k
    March 6, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Any gesture towards peace is sure to be vetoed by the MIC, which is well on it’s way to achieving full spectrum dominance of the American populace and their government. Be clear that this Mafia that seeks to control our lives has no interest whatever in seeing peace break out in the world, and will do whatever it needs to do to make sure that does not happen. The full court press on Trump is just a sample of what these war lovers can and will do to ensure their hegemony.

    • Patrick Lucius
      March 6, 2017 at 1:07 pm

      MIC? Why introduce unknown terms without a definition?

      • mike k
        March 6, 2017 at 4:46 pm

        Sorry. MIC = Military Industrial Complex. Some acronyms puzzled me when I first dipped into these pages. For example, POTUS baffled me until it was explained to stand for President of the United States.

  13. Patricia Victour
    March 6, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    This is all assuming that the US actually wants peace anywhere, any time. There’s no money to be made in negotiating and peaceful resolution, so don’t hold your breath. Most countries would prefer not to have to spend all their money building up defenses in case we start another stupid war; most countries would prefer to concentrate on building their economies and feeling secure in their area of the world. They could do that if we came home and fixed our own problems here instead of running amok all over the planet in an insane quest to rule it all.

  14. SteveK9
    March 6, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    This cannot happen now, because the permanent government, or deep state, or your favorite term, and the Democrats have decided to overthrow the legally-elected government of the US. The front men, the Democrats, are on the media day and night, proclaiming ‘Trump is a Russian agent’ is beyond doubt, even the whole thing is a preposterous falsehood.

  15. March 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Great article, Ann Wright. It’s completely true, everyone’s comment pointing to the underlying fact that this “great nation” wants its way, and that way is war, not peace.

  16. Vera
    March 7, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Present North Korea suffered some 4 million dead during the Korea conflict – the US carpet-bombing the country. So who really is the insane one?

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