In Donald Trump’s recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to step across the North Korean border. This encounter is the third between the two leaders in just over one year, but the increased diplomacy has not seen positive results. During Trump’s tenure, North Korea has developed a functional nuclear missile capable of reaching the U.S., ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric brought the two nations to the brink of war, and Trump’s stubbornness in negotiation talks have stalled any talks of denuclearization.
Pretending as though the U.S. actually has the means to will North Korea’s nuclear weapons away is foolish and has strained the potential for actual diplomatic progress. If this does not change, this has severe implications for world peace. Not only does a lack of effective diplomacy risk Kim’s regime extending its nuclear power and heightening the potential for future conflict between the U.S. and North Korea, but it also prevents any progress being made on relieving oppressed North Korean citizens who do not possess even the most basic human rights. This article looks at three key benefits which can be gained from purposeful and strategic diplomacy with North Korea going forward: nuclear freeze, human rights advancements and open communications.
Although neither Trump, nor any U.S. President, could persuade Kim to forego his nuclear program, constraining the spread of a North Korean nuclear arsenal is possible. Limiting North Korea’s nuclear program decreases the chances for conflict escalation as well as the potential for North Korea to sell nuclear information to foreign nations. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton orchestrated a deal with North Korea to halt its nuclear progress by providing it with fuel oil in exchange for non-plutonium reactors being built (plutonium being a key ingredient used in making nuclear weapons). Although the Clinton deal has since been scrutinized, it showed the potential for well thought out diplomacy to achieve nuclear restraint.
Today, the U.S. and other countries have good leverage to achieve results. A heavy U.S. military presence in South Korea and extensive economic sanctions remain as constant threats to the Kim regime. Using diplomacy strategically, the U.S. could offer concessions to North Korea in exchange for deals which restrict further nuclear testing. Because Kim already possesses a functional weapon that is capable of reaching the U.S., he already has an effective deterrent against any U.S. violence. The problem now is restricting North Korea from developing more sophisticated weapons, or selling such materials to foreign governments in exchange for economic aid.
Human Rights Advancements
U.S. leverage could also be used to achieve progress on a humanitarian front. Notwithstanding the threats to world peace which exist when a rogue state continues to sophisticate its nuclear weapons program, there are millions of innocent citizens in North Korea who have no political liberties and are starving. According to recent findings from the U.N. World Food Program, more than 10 million North Koreans have food insecurity. This number comprises more than 40% percent of the population, making the issue a severe humanitarian crisis. The lack of food is compounded by strict U.N. sanctions, which have been tightened further since 2017. The result of this has been that bilateral trade between North Korea and China (its largest trading partner) has decreased by over 50%.
Efforts to work collaboratively with North Korea could see international sanctions relief, or even future promises of trade agreements, in exchange for the Kim regime providing adequate food to its citizens. Despite North Korea being mostly isolated from the rest of the world, it has enough resources to put toward a fully-fledged nuclear program. This means that they also have the means to feed their citizens. The key to solving the humanitarian issue is to get Kim to move security funds towards basic resources for his citizens. With a proper strategy, decreasing Kim’s insecurities and giving him the chance to socialize back into the international community is a viable way to improve the living conditions of North Koreans.
Even if effective diplomacy with North Korea is not entirely successful in achieving a nuclear freeze or better humanitarian conditions, open communications can be established between the U.S. and North Korea in order to avoid accidental conflict. Many wars and conflicts in the past have been the product of unintentional escalations and misperceptions, where one side is uncertain of the intentions of the other.
During 2017, aggressive rhetoric and military bolstering started to bind both parties to war. A crucial factor which raised the likelihood of war was a lack of proper communication. Trump and his advisors released many heated statements which would send to Kim – pushing them both to the brink even when a nuclear war was eminently undesirable for everyone. The incident sparks very powerful parallels to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where false alarms and misperceptions nearly caused an inadvertent war. After this, the U.S. and the Soviet Union established a hotline between Washington and Moscow to establish better communications in case of a similar event. A similar communication line between Washington and Pyongyang today would surely prevent what we saw in 2017 from happening again and possibly facilitate further progressive talks between the two.
Even though Trump cannot charm his way into dismantling Kim’s nuclear program with his no-substance theatrical diplomacy, there are progressive diplomatic steps which his administration could take. These involve working out deals that facilitate safeguards from future conflict, as well as helping the innocent citizens in North Korea who do not have enough food to live a basic life.