No matter what happens in the coming days between the United States and North Korea, Washington has only one objective: avoiding military conflict with the hermit kingdom—at nearly all costs.
What about denuclearization, you ask? No offense, but the 1990s want their garbage foreign policy ideas back.
While getting rid of the North’s nukes should remain an important goal, Chairman Kim Jong-un’s potential 65 nuclear weapons are clearly an expensive insurance policy in case the hawks in Washington decide to forget the lessons of history and try to enact regime change. If Kim ever used them in an offensive manner, launching some sort of suicidal first strike, his regime, along with the majority of his 25 million citizens, would be destroyed thanks to the nuclear firepower of just one late 1970s era U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine—and he knows that.
Whether we like it or not—and despite how he treats his own people—Kim is a rational actor on the world’s stage. If we truly believe this, then we should place nuclear disarmament at the end of a long, multi-year process of normalizing relations with Pyongyang. Whether the neoconservatives want to accept it or not, America is vastly more powerful than North Korea, and only the start of a war should be considered a failure. If we took a moment and remembered our history, we should recall that America knows how to play the game of nuclear deterrence. The pages of that well-worn playbook have served us well, from the old Soviet Union to Russia and China. Tiny and impoverished North Korea should be no exception.
That takes us to the events in Hanoi over the last few days. While the summit surely did not produce what myself and many others had hoped for—and we may never get a truly honest answer of what went down and who is telling the truth—the status quo still holds. Neither side returned to the rhetoric of 2017 that might have accidentally sparked a nuclear showdown. U.S. and North Korean negotiations were respectful, with neither side wanting to downplay or attack the goodwill and efforts of the other. In my mind, that showed the strength of the relationship and how far we have come. Even North Korea’s state news media avoided any negative talk of the visit, instead playing up the positive aspects of the negotiations, noting that Kim and Trump will meet again.
And then the hawks swooped in. Republican South Carolina Senator Lyndsey Graham seemed ready for a fight before Air Force one even hit the tarmac. “I am encouraged that there are plans to continue talking,” he added. “We must not go back to the status quo. If negotiations fail, it would be time to end the nuclear threat from North Korea—one way or the other.”
North Korea’s hawks had their own tough words to throw around. Speaking to various South Korean media outlets, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui stated that her country should be rewarded for halting nuclear and long-range missile testing—or else. “I think about whether (we) should continue talks.” stated Choe. “I (got) a feeling that (Chairman Kim) is changing his thought a bit” toward the negotiations with the U.S., Choe said. “It’s my personal feeling.”
This is how trouble starts. It was the hot rhetoric combined with missile tests that nearly started a war that would have resulted in millions of casualties. The good news is we are a long way from such dark days. But now is not the time to take any chances. In fact, now is the time to bring in the one person who might be able to put the talks back on track: South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The Moon Miracle, or how I like to refer to the opening of relations he helped craft after Kim’s 2018 New Year’s Day speech, is the diplomatic glue that has ensured that the relationship between Trump and Kim does not come apart. On several occasions, it has been Moon who has had to step in, trying to bridge the gap between Washington and Pyongyang, to ensure that progress, however small, continues to be made.
Going forward, there are several paths Moon can take to re-inject momentum into the process, ensuring that Trump and Kim hold a third summit, and finally taking the first steps towards a truly transformed relationship. First, Moon should do as he did back in 2018, holding a snap summit with Kim along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Only in person can Moon get an accurate read of what happened, seeing what sort of compromise can be struck.
Next, Moon should head to Washington, conveying Kim’s unfiltered threats directly to Trump. While Trump may continue to say that “he is in no rush” to sign a nuclear deal with the North, if the president is truly the dealmaker he says he is, he surely understands that the longer talks go idle and tough words potentially grow into threats, Kim may decide that missile testing may be his only tool to convince the U.S. of his resolve—and that would be a disaster.
In fact, Moon may be the only person who can ensure that the diplomatic track started early last year not only continues but is successful. Of course, Moon himself has much to lose if U.S.-North Korea talks come off the rails. Moon has staked his entire legacy on better relations with the North. But if Washington and Pyongyang are at loggerheads, a diplomatic collapse could prove a mortal blow that will limit his own ability to enact any domestic political agenda at home, and that would be a shame.
Below, I would offer to Moon a path that could transform U.S.-North Korea relations:
—The ending of the Korean War via a peace declaration;
—The opening of liaison offices to ensure any crisis can be headed off by nearly instant communication;
—Joint U.S.-North Korea excavation teams working in the North to bring back to both nations the fallen heroes of the Korean War;
—A slow and steady march towards reducing the nuclear threat that each nation possesses on the other—and not just demanding North Korea surrender its nukes before we decide to do anything.
The list above should be enacted chronologically to build trust and confidence, putting tough nuclear issues at the end of a normalization process. A relationship must first be forged in order to approach nuclear issues that, at the moment, can’t be solved in the current diplomatic environment.
All of this will surely be a tough task—and there is only one person on this planet who can pull it off.
Harry J. Kazianis is the Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter:@Grecianformula.