Edited version first appeared in Asia Times.
As if to set the table for the forthcoming summit in Florida with China’s President Xi Jinping, President Donald Trump declared that if China won’t help resolve the North Korea crisis, the U.S. can and will take direct and unilateral action, implying the military route.
In a sense, Trump is correct. North Korea has always been an American problem not a Chinese one. Pyongyang regime from Kim I, II and III has always worried about what action Uncle Sam might take against them, never about China or even Japan and South Korea.
While direct military strike against targets inside North Korea might be one option, there is a much easier and non-violent approach available to Trump. All he has to do is to bend a little from the customary posture of a hegemon and offer to meet and talk.
The emissary Trump can send to Pyongyang could begin the process by delivering a message along the following lines: We are willing to meet with you to discuss and negotiate mutually acceptable terms and conditions that would lead to a nuclear free Korea Peninsula.
During this period of exchange of visits and meetings, the U.S. would make no further aggressive actions against North Korea and you would agree to do the same and take no action that would intimidate your neighboring countries.
This would not be the first time for the two protagonists to follow this path. In 1994, the Clinton Administration launched a bilateral negotiation that led to an “Agreed Framework.”
How the framework came about was discussed in William Perry’s memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” He led the negotiations with Pyongyang while he was Clinton’s Secretary of Defense and continued after he stepped down.
The basic elements of the framework included: (1) North Korea would stop construction of larger reactors and suspend producing plutonium from a smaller already operating reactor. (2) South Korea and Japan would build two light water reactors for generating electricity (so that North Korea would not need the reactors.) (3) The U.S. would supply fuel oil until the light water reactors become operational.
“I considered this a good deal for the US: war was averted, plutonium production suspended, and North Korea gave up their program for building larger reactors that were under construction,” said Dr. Perry.
As he related in his book, after a long tortuous series of talks and meetings, his team was on the verge of reaching a deal with North Korea that would convert the cease-fire agreement in place since 1953 into a permanent peace treaty and normal relations with the US.
From the North Korean’s point of view, getting a binding commitment from America eased their sense of insecurity and the need for blackmail in the form of nuclear weapons to counter threats from the US.
By then George W. Bush entered the White House. He decided not to continue the dialogue with North Korea for next two years (probably because he did not want anything to do with a member of axis of evil.)
When Bush resumed contact with Pyongyang in year three of his administration, he in effect moved the goal post by adding more conditions and demands on North Korea.
By then Pyongyang was well on its way to developing the atomic bomb and was in the position to reply with the middle finger salute.
I asked Dr. Perry if having the bomb changed the dynamics of the bilateral negotiations. He said of course the restarted negotiations were made more complicated and difficult.
Trying to be helpful, Beijing organized the six party talks that added Japan, South Korea and Russia as well as China to the mix. Nothing positive emerged because the basic conditions remain unchanged. Namely, North Korea wanted to be treated as a nation with normal relations with the US.
What did changed was that China was now the responsible party for the North Korea debacle. From the US point of view, China keeps North Korea’s economy alive, from its collapse, has most influence on the Pyongyang regime, etc., etc.
Washington, whether oblivious to history or unwilling to face inconvenient reality, has for the last sixteen years been waiting for Beijing to bail America out of the mess.
All President Trump has to do is to ignore the legacy of his two predecessors and ask Secretary Tillerson to make a fresh approach with Pyongyang. I am sure President Xi would be happy to assist.