A recent Hankyoreh news article quoted the North Korean foreign minister as saying that the opportunity to “denuclearize the Korean peninsula seems to have been lost because of the U.S.” For some time now, Pyongyang has been attempting to engage Washington in dialogue, though prior to this recent statement, the reason was not quite clear. Even though this may simply be a ploy to get sanctions removed with no intent to sincerely discuss denuclearization, it seems counterproductive for the U.S. to reject out of hand any invitation to the table.
In fact, according to an NK News report, a team of international experts declared that the very goal of sanctions is indeed dialogue. Ignoring for the moment the misuse of the word goal – dialogue is not an end-state, it is an activity – and in view of the refusal to engage by Washington, it seems that the true aim of sanctions is punishment, even though currently it is politically incorrect to baldly state that.
Well, considering that North Korea routinely engages in international activities that have been determined by a competent authority to be criminal and thus is indisputably deserving of punishment, the country needs to be made aware – just as little children are – that actions have consequences. There is nothing inherently wrong with punishment meted out for illegal behavior.
Since the U.S. asserts that it is always willing to engage North Korea and since the North seems to be offering the opportunity to do so, why not sit down with them?
But since the U.S. asserts that it is always willing to engage North Korea and since the North seems to be offering the opportunity to do so, why not sit down with them, if only to find out what is on their minds? One recent commentary by Joshua Stanton bluntly states that discussions are pointless. That is certainly true – as long as Washington is incapable of focusing on anything other than nuclear disarmament by Pyongyang. By now, though, nearly everyone admits that such an event is not going to happen. The North simply has no incentive to denuclearize and every reason not to.
BEHIND THE TEASE FOR TALKS
If one pays attention to the North Korean statement that the opportunity for denuclearization only seems to be lost, there is intelligence to be gleaned from it. The door for dialogue has been cracked open. The question is whether the U.S. kicks it back closed or peeks inside to see what can be learned. We should consider likely reasons for the North’s desire to talk. Possibilities include:
- Sanctions that restrict Pyongyang’s access to desperately needed hard currency
- THAAD that will negate much of Pyongyang’s developing offensive capabilities
- North Korea has already achieved what it needs with regard to nuclear weapons
- Upcoming joint South Korea-U.S. exercises that intimidate the North
- Kim Jong Un’s concern about being personally sanctioned and targeted
- A weak U.S. president and upcoming elections in U.S.
Regardless of what reason or combination of reasons is behind the North’s current willingness to talk, it is unlikely that it would agree to freeze any missile programs. Even if Pyongyang would be willing to halt its nuclear program, it still needs to develop reliable delivery systems, for it has yet to accomplish that feat. Then there is the irrefutable fact that Pyongyang defaults on deals.
SANCTIONS: FOR WHAT?
It is worth revisiting what it is that we hope to accomplish with sanctions. Care has been taken to not hurt the common North Korean citizen by not targeting foodstuffs, medicines, and other necessities. For the most part, prices on common grocery items appear to be holding steady, but admittedly there have been unexpected consequences due to the regime not having hard currency. One example has been the conscription of everyday citizens for slave labor. Yet, the world cannot afford to let Pyongyang get away with business as usual.
But what is it that we actually want?
My sense is that there is no true consensus, that there is no clear underlying objective. After all, if the reputed goal of sanctions is dialogue, then there are at least two problems with that. The first is that we have set the performance bar disconcertingly low, and the second is that talks are being offered but the West is rejecting them. It seems that dialogue is not what we are after, after all. Returning to the question of what it is that we really want, if we are unclear as to what that is, then we cannot possibly attain it. An unclear goal by definition precludes achieving it.
If the reputed goal of sanctions is dialogue, then there are at least two problems with that
Perhaps there are liaisons going on behind the scenes out of the public’s eye. Oftentimes that is necessary for any number of reasons that range from saving face to safeguarding national security interests. It is unfortunate that the current U.S. lame-duck administration won’t be able to accomplish anything in the little time left available to it. However, beginnings on several other fronts could be made. Rather than flailing about on some “mission impossible” – we don’t have the right cast of characters for such an endeavor anyway – we ought to concentrate on smaller issues since progress on them might lead to opportunities to work on bigger ones.
A previous article of mine concludes by mentioning a few such topics that could benefit from cross-border discussions. There are other far more productive issues than the dead-on-arrival nuclear disarmament dilemma on which we are presently focused. The point is that engaging one’s enemy in talks is rarely a waste of time.
The point is that engaging one’s enemy in talks is rarely a waste of time
But even if sitting at the same table with Pyongyang yields little of value, there is nothing but time to lose at this point – unless the actual intent of sanctions is to create enough pressure to induce regime change, either from economic or political collapse or by internal coup. If that is the covert purpose of sanctions, then of course there would be no purpose at all for talks. The publically expressed aim of sanctions being dialogue then would be just to disguise the true intent of regime change. But are we ready for that?
So that brings us back to the question: to talk or not to talk – which is it?
Main picture: NK News
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