Shifting the narrative on North Korea

The North Korean nuclear threat is too often portrayed as an insoluble problem, a choice between "holocaust or humiliation," in John F. Kennedy's words. But just as Kennedy, backed by vast nuclear superiority, looked for ways for the Soviet Union to extricate itself from the Cuban missile crisis, so should the Trump administration be searching for ways North Korea can escape from the corner into which its reckless leader has painted the country.

A diplomatic exit can be found by broadening the agenda beyond the nuclear issue. The few successes in negotiations since the 1990s with the father and grandfather of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un included elements that would normalize North Korea's relationships with South Korea or the United States. Agreements involving energy assistance and food aid fell through for various reasons, but they did — for a period of time — work.

President Donald Trump’s intimidation skills are undeniable, but off-the-cuff bombast and bluster in a matter of war and peace only risk escalation of the situation. The president needs to allow his capable key advisers to shift the narrative away from an exclusive focus on nuclear weapons to a terrain where solutions could benefit all parties.

The president needs to follow the path of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who recently said the United States does not seek "regime change" in North Korea and would like to have a "productive dialogue" with its leaders. The stage was set for a broadening of negotiations this month when the United Nations Security Council, including China and Russia, voted 15-0 for stronger sanctions against Pyongyang.

There are a number of potentially constructive options that do not necessarily include acceptance of North Korean nuclear gains — but only if one approaches the problem posed by North Korea and its nuclear ambitions with a recognition of history and the perceptions and interests of all parties. Diplomacy efforts could start with a readiness to engage both North Korea and China in a process to bring an end to the Korean War of 1950-53, which is, in effect, still going on.

Fighting in the brutal war was only suspended when the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. At the time, President Eisenhower declared: “And so at long last, the carnage of war is to cease and the negotiation of the conference table is to begin.” Of course, the negotiation never really began, and the war technically continues between the two countries today.

A renewed and sustained effort to work toward a formal treaty to end the hostility offers several advantages.

First, it has the support of South Korea — the nation with the most at stake. Its new president, Moon Jae-in, called for talks on a peace treaty between China and North Korea this spring. In mid-July, he urged renewed military talks to lower tensions. And Tuesday, he explicitly said there will be no military action by the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula without South Korea’s consent.

Second, it could bring North Korea to the table and meet a former demand of its leaders. Mr. Kim has been more obsessed with conducting provocative tests of nuclear weapons and missiles, but he also called for dialogue with the South last year.

Third, such a step would offer China a prominent role and one their leader, Xi Jinping, can envision as appealing — without kow-towing to President Trump's demands for Chinese pressure on North Korea. President Xi recognizes the danger of the North's nuclear threat, and he worries more about a collapse of his difficult neighbor and the potential migration of millions into China. Last week, he urged President Trump to avoid inflammatory rhetoric.

Many issues interest both North and South Korea. Talks could help revive on-and-off efforts to reunite families separated since the war. They could reestablish work to define borders, resume hotlines and regulate military exercises, one of North Korea's main concerns.

Human rights should be on this agenda, as they were in a 1991 “Basic Agreement,” along with strengthened economic relations, which is certainly appealing to the North given the South's extraordinary post-war success.

Once key North-South issues are advanced, and an interim step toward a nuclear freeze by the North is agreed upon, longer-term challenges such as a nuclear weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia could be discussed. The U.S. and the Republic of Korea could put aside missile defense plans.

A final peace treaty might be a long way off; such negotiations would have an interim character until the nuclear issues are resolved to the satisfaction of all nations, including Japan and Russia. Should progress be made toward a relaxation of tensions and an end to the North's hostility and isolation, one could eventually envision a lifting of sanctions against North Korea in return for denuclearization, commitments to withdraw forces from tense borders, and the prospect of stability on the peninsula.

James E. Goodby (jpgoodby@gmail.com)was vice-chair of the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty talks (1982-83) and ambassador to Finland. Frederic B. Hill, a former Baltimore Sun correspondent, conducted wargaming exercises and conferences on national security issues for the Department of State; his email is fhill207@gmail.com.

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