US needs to change its approach to talks with North Korea

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking to the media after two days of meetings with Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief, on July 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik

The follow-up to the promising, first summit between North Korean and US leaders in Singapore on June 12 has been disappointing, if not disastrous.

First, there was Pyongyang’s vitriolic reaction to the July 6-7 visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Then, on Thursday, a planned meeting about Pyongyang returning the remains of missing American servicemen from the Korean War did not happen.

In what was clearly a calculated move, the North Korean representatives simply did not show up on July 12 at Panmunjom for talks with US officials. A post by Yonhap News agency – since deleted – stated that the North wants to upgrade the talks to the general level and move them to July 15.

Even so, there are two pieces of good news. First, the North seems interested in continuing the discussions. Second, whenever the North is talking, the chances of severe provocations are lessened.

However, speaking more broadly, the unfortunate news is that the American approach to dealing with North Korea is fundamentally flawed and probably doomed. That approach has been a failure to see the world as Pyongyang does.

Pyongyang’s perceptions are the foundation of its thinking. The US needs to be fully aware of what these perceptions are.

The fundamental flaw

If we deal with North Korea thinking that they see us as we see ourselves – or that they see themselves as we see them – it is not only hubristic, it is dangerous.

An analogy might be useful. Consider the case of Israel, surrounded by state and non-state actors that are openly hostile. Tel Aviv’s only constant ally – despite occasional waverings – has been Washington. Israel fears for its very existence and has taken appropriate measures to prevent its annihilation, including the open secret that Tel Aviv has nuclear weapons.

Now switch Beijing for Washington and Pyongyang for Tel Aviv. Once the shock of the comparison wears off, the idea becomes clear. Instead of Syria, Iran and a host of non-state actors, North Korea is faced by enemies Japan, South Korea – until very recently – and the United States. This is the perspective in Pyongyang.

The United States is either incapable or unwilling to appreciate North Korea’s point of view, and that prevents Washington from fathoming what Pyongyang is up to and why. For nearly three decades, the US has failed in its negotiations with the North because of this.

Americans know the history of North Korea cheating on and eventually abrogating every agreement it has ever signed, yet continually hope “this time it will be different.” No, it won’t. Because Washington has not changed its approach.

A discomfiting choice

It was Kim Jong-un who originally invited the US to discussions on denuclearizing. But it seems likely that Kim proposed the subject of denuclearization – knowing that it is Washington’s major interest regarding Pyongyang – as a bait to get the Americans to the table. If things went well concerning the priorities Pyongyang wanted to discuss, then possibly the two sides could get to denuclearization.

However, Washington and Pyongyang have huge gaps to bridge over what topics are more important and the meanings of key terms.

The North Korean reaction to Pompeo’s last trip to Pyongyang distinctly demonstrates the difference between what the North and the US see as most important. What the North had been expecting to discuss were better relations between the two countries and a “lasting and stable peace” on the peninsula – the first two items in the Singapore Declaration.

It was Pompeo who jumped to the third item – denuclearization as defined by the US .

Since Pyongyang views the US and its military forces as an existential threat, it is unrealistic to expect the North to unilaterally disarm before security agreements are agreed. Only once the North’s’ viewpoint is understood can effective negotiations begin. Like it or not, this is reality.

The road not taken

If, regardless of risks, Washington chooses to continue discussions, its approach must reflect an understanding of the North’s perspective.

Talk of decapitation squads and other military threats likely interfere with Kim’s sleep when tensions are high. For that, and for other reasons, he would like a formal end to the Korean War and a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice between the two sides: Beijing-Pyongyang on the one hand, and Seoul-Washington on the other.

All past diplomatic efforts have failed because, in addition to the deceptions and dishonesties on the part of the North, the West has not taken into account the huge incentive for Pyongyang to not denuclearize – its “treasured sword” of nuclear weapons is seen as its guarantor of regime survival.

Thus, a change of course is required.

Perhaps, since South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems willing to risk it, then Team Trump could restart the troubled negotiation process with the items that are clearly of the greatest importance to Kim and his elite inner circle. South Korea has embarked upon the path to better relations with the North and so must Washington if negotiations are ever to be successful.

The next step would be that elusive peace treaty – which is, admittedly, fraught with risk.

In addition to the reasons articulated by many experts as to why the US should not to negotiate a treaty with North Korea, there is no guarantee that such an approach would ever yield an agreement for Pyongyang to denuclearize.

But without a treaty, there also is no way forward – another stalemate.

One thing is clear. The present approach has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. Washington needs to travel the road not taken.

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