Tough talk from Trump administration officials on North Korea. President Donald Trump said the “North Koreans are behaving very, very badly.” On the other hand, the North Koreans once again have shouldered their way to the head of the foreign policy queue and front page news around the world. Known as masters of brinkmanship, they have played that card again by conducting a number of missile tests and menacing their neighbors in Northeast Asia, a strategy that has won them major concessions from the West for 60 years.
This has been a foreseeable course. Whether challenging disputed boundaries in the West Sea, inciting incidents along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, firing missiles into the Sea of Japan or testing new, more powerful rocket engines, these temper tantrums serve to quickly propel North Korea to international relevance. This has been especially predictable during the initial stages of a new U.S. administration. North Korea consistently leverages its bluster by challenging transitioning administrations to set the tone for the future.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is correct that 20 years of diplomacy have failed — actually it’s been far longer than that — but the proposed alternative of discarding diplomacy is not the answer either. Our inability to understand North Korea is at the core of our diplomatic failure. It is folly to replace one failed plan with another.
Admittedly, successful policy solutions are difficult to craft when few Americans have ever visited North Korea and even fewer have lived there long enough to understand the deeper culture. I have often stated that most of our experts vaguely understand the tip of the visible cultural iceberg and remain dangerously ignorant of the more perilous portion expanding deep below the surface, waiting to tear a Titanic-sized hole in the hull of conventional negotiating strategies.
Because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, it has no one on the ground to develop relationships or interpret messages and signals that could foster improved relations. North Koreans actually desire better relations with the United States. It is a nation, as we have heard, racked by poverty and dysfunction, but proud of its culture and heritage. Its military remains a threat, but not the specter it once was — instead a ghost of itself, debilitated by lack of resources and training. It could not sustain an offensive operation and knows war would result in regime change. North Koreans do not wish for war but will fight to the last breath in the defense of their homeland.
Most government officials I met understood the country’s condition but demanded respect as a nation. So all of our attempts at threatening North Korea generate the reverse effect, a defiant resolve to fight no matter the cost and threaten destructive retribution. It drives the quest for a nuclear equalizer as its only hope.
Relying on China to help in controlling North Korea will continue to fail, as China’s key interests are maintaining the status quo in North Korea, preventing millions of refugees from pouring across the border and providing a check to U.S. power in the region. Our ally South Korea has much more to lose by war than the North and also wishes for peace on the peninsula.
So what should be the course forward? It is hard to alter decades of antagonism between our two nations. However, we learned during the Agreed Framework of the 1990s that North Koreans are tough negotiators but are willing to cooperate. We can deal with them without compromising our own values. As I have written in two books, we must abandon the adversarial negotiation approach and embrace a more collaborative mindset, firm but fair. Contrary to conventional wisdom, North Koreans are logical thinkers who argue toe to toe on issues but respond positively to clearly defined proposals, kept in good faith and delivered in a spirit of cooperation. This is not theory; it works.
Strategically, the Trump administration should step back and baseline review its North Korea policy, stop negotiating in the international press and quietly propose a few ice-breaking gestures that do not compromise our values but allow both sides to save face and avoid military confrontation neither side wants. The United States should offer to open relations with the North and discuss our differences bilaterally.
Omit the threats; they are already implied. Allow North Korea the dignity to change course without appearing weak.
There is an old North Korean saying: If you come with rice cakes we will also offer rice cakes. It is time for a truly new approach. One we know will succeed.
State Rep. Richard Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township, lived and worked in both North and South Korea for 14 years and has written seven books on Korea, including “Negotiating with North Korea” and “Living with the Enemy: Inside North Korea.” He teaches international relations and political science at St. Vincent College. He is a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 2018 election (Patriots4Saccone@gmail.com).