President Obama’s recent Middle East trip showed what good things can result from thoughtful, direct presidential involvement. The president addressed young Israelis, reassured allies in the region and brokered an Israeli apology to Turkey for a deadly raid on a flotilla attempting to take supplies to Gaza.
The president should employ that same sort of diplomacy towards North Korea.
An increasingly dangerous confrontation is building between the United States and North Korea. The outrageous rhetoric pouring out of Pyongyang makes it difficult to do anything more than dismiss North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. But abandoning diplomacy would be extremely dangerous. The North Koreans are convinced that nuclear weapons are the only thing keeping them safe from a U.S. attack, and recent flights of nuclear-capable US warplanes over the Korean peninsula only hardened that conviction.
As distasteful as it may seem, we need to talk directly with the North Koreans. They will not give up their nuclear weapons at this juncture, and for the US to demand that they do so as a precondition for talks will only lead to greater tension.
The George W. Bush administration took the position that engagement with Pyongyang would reward bad behavior, and that seems to be the approach of the Obama administration too. But though the North Koreans often sound like belligerent lunatics, there are certainly many reasons to engage, particularly on a peace treaty. I have been dealing with Korean issues for 40 years, since I arrived as the CIA’s chief of station in Seoul. Later, from 1989 to 1993, I served as ambassador to South Korea. And time and again I saw diplomacy work where confrontation would have failed.
In August 1973, US Ambassador Philip Habib learned that opposition leader Kim Dae-jung had been kidnapped in Tokyo and was on a small boat about to be thrown into the sea. It was widely assumed (and later confirmed) that South Korea’s intelligence service, the KCIA, was responsible. Habib wrote Park a letter, giving him time to construct a response that kept Kim alive and enabled Park to deflect responsibility for the kidnapping.
In December 1980, I witnessed close up a confrontation that failed. Kim Dae-jung had been sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of treason. Outgoing President Jimmy Carter sent Defence Secretary Harold Brown and me to Seoul to confront South Korea’s president, Chun Doo-hwan, on the matter. Our instructions were to tell him to release Kim “or else.”
This approach failed utterly, and Kim was on the verge of execution. The incoming Reagan administration, led by Richard V. Allen, was astute enough to offer Chun a visit to the White House to keep Kim alive. In order to see Reagan, Chun released Kim, who went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The alternative to diplomacy is escalating conflict, and that would be a terrible mistake. Negotiating a lasting peace is the only sensible approach.