by Kevin Martin, September 18, 2017.
With North Korea’s alarming escalation of its nuclear weapons and missile programs, humanity faces our most dire nuclear situation since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. We narrowly, and most historians agree it was mostly matter of luck, averted catastrophe then, and there have been many other close calls since. Those were usually caused by technology failures giving false indications of a nuclear attack, forcing nuclear missileers (and on at least one occasion Russian President Boris Yeltsin) to decide the fate of humanity with only a few minutes’ notice.
At this point in time, we can’t count on our luck holding, that there will be no miscalculations by US, North Korean, South Korean, Japanese, Chinese or Russian leaders or military personnel that could lead to a regional or global calamity. We need diplomats.
Some will see this as partisan, but our concern needs to be for humanity, not for Republicans or Democrats. Simply put, obviously-way-out-of-his-depth President Donald Trump and oil-magnate-turned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are not up to the job of negotiating a peaceful resolution with North and South Korea, and there is no reason to expect them to be, as they’ve never done anything remotely like this before. They’ve done real estate and oil deals. Even those who support Trump’s domestic agenda can surely see he can’t do this part of the job (he just referred to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man” in a tweet, I’m sure Sir Elton John isn’t amused and neither should anyone else be). No baseball team would send all rookie pitchers to the mound in the World Series, nor should the United States rely on novices to defuse this frightful situation that could threaten all life on Earth.
Luckily, paraphrasing the great Casey Stengel, there are people who know how to play this game. US diplomats have conducted successful negotiations with North Korea going back to 1994, which in several cases temporarily halted its nuclear program. The problem has been inconsistency, lack of follow-through and broken promises by both sides.
Former President Jimmy Carter, former UN Ambassador/Energy Secretary/New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former State Department officials Robert Gallucci, Leon Sigal and Wendy Sherman (recently a lead negotiator on the successful Iran nuclear agreement) all have track records of success in negotiating with North Korea. Any or all could be tapped to open talks with North Korea, and possibly revive multi-lateral negotiations (including South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) as well. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and the fact that they have been active in Democratic administrations should not be an issue. Heck, if Dennis Rodman can help, send him, too. (Just kidding. I think.)
Trump can and should delegate this crucial job to people who know what they are doing, and he can take the credit if he wants to, who cares? Or, they can go to North Korea on their own, there’s no way Trump could disavow a peace deal even if he didn’t approve the talks ahead of time. The stakes are too high to worry about partisan advantage.
As to the substance of a deal, it’s not rocket science. An initial “freeze for a freeze” in which the North would halt its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a cessation of the massive, twice-a-year US-South Korea war drills has been proposed by China and Russia, with some signals of openness to it by North Korea. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has dismissed it, but she can and should be overruled. Beyond that, North Korea wants a formal peace treaty to replace the supposedly temporary armistice that in most peoples’ minds ended the US-Korea war in 1953. North Korea, faced with the overwhelming military, political and economic power of the US/South Korea/Japan alliance, has legitimate security concerns we need to understand and attempt to ease, and we can also build confidence by addressing humanitarian concerns on the Korean peninsula, including food aid to the North, reunification of divided families, and seeking the return of the remains of deceased US soldiers to their families.
While the end goal should be a peacefully re-unified, nuclear-free Korean peninsula, it’s hard to see that coming about in the near term. However, with both North Korea and the US/South Korean alliance being effectively deterred by the military forces of each other, there is no military option. There is only diplomacy, which will be tough, but there is no good reason for further delay.