Talking with North Korea

05/26/2017 12:08 pm ET

Ask national security experts about the No. 1 threat facing the United States, and most will say it is North Korea. It is a hostile nation that possesses nuclear weapons and uses them to threaten us. It presents a critical threat to America and its allies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a repressive dictator who routinely imprisons his enemies. Disloyalty to the state is punishable by death. His country is isolated with no real allies.

North Korea has the world's fourth-largest standing army, although the army has an array of problems. More significantly, it has short-range and medium-range missiles that are capable of reaching South Korea and Japan.

It is getting closer to having an operational intercontinental ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead. Experts say that, within a few years, it could build an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. West Coast. In the near future, North Korea could kill tens of thousands if not millions of Americans. It already could kill millions of people in South Korea.

President Donald Trump has vowed to solve the North Korean problem. He and his advisers have rejected the Obama administration approach of "strategic patience," but they have not said what they will do instead. Trump will find, if he has not already, that there aren't any good options.

The United States has been debating its policy toward North Korea for decades, and we keep kicking the can down the road -- improvising, debating, waiting and taking incremental steps. For objectives we talk about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, about dismantling North Korea's nuclear capability, but with little idea how to get there.

From my perspective, our policy must accept that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons. With enemies both near and far, it sees nuclear weapons as strategically necessary to its survival. In this view, giving them up would make North Korea vulnerable; disarmament would invite annihilation.

While it once seemed the North Korean regime might collapse, that now appears unlikely. Kim has been in power since 2011 and has put aside numerous threats to his rule. Some people argue the U.S. should take military action now to disable North Korea's nuclear capability. But such a first strike would risk a strong response, targeting our allies in South Korea and elsewhere, with horrific casualties.

So what do we do?

We are taking steps to defend the homeland against a possible North Korea strike. But creating effective anti-missile defense systems is a demanding task, often compared to firing a bullet to hit another bullet. We have improved our technology, but full protection is not possible. It takes only a missile or two getting through to wreak havoc.

We are strengthening economic sanctions. North Korea is the most sanctioned country on the planet -- the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union, South Korea and Japan have all restricted trade since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006. Sanctions are an important tool to ratchet up the economic pressure on North Korea, but they are only partially effective.

When there is money to be made, trade finds a way. Sanctions have not succeeded in prompting North Korea to give up its nuclear capability or even to slow its march to become a greater threat.

For years, we have pleaded with China to impose more effective sanctions. China is North Korea's biggest trading partner and a critical source of its food and energy. It has reason to be displeased with North Korea, but it tolerates Kim's aggressive behavior, seeing North Korea as a buffer against South Korea and the United States. Chinese leaders worry that a collapse of North Korea would send refugees flooding into China.

Our defense also includes deterrence, with a strong, visible military presence in the region. We have 28,500 troops stationed there, and we perform regular military training exercises and other shows of force to support South Korea and deter North Korean aggression. Kim knows that, if he were to launch a first strike, he and his country would be obliterated.

Though tensions are high, there are few signs that war is about to break out. The major risk is that a misstep could lead to uncontrolled conflict. It's scary to imagine what an impetuous, frustrated North Korean leader with his hand on the nuclear trigger might do.

One reason for opening some sort of dialogue with North Korea is that it would give us someone to call to avoid starting a war through error or miscalculation.

The idea of talking with North Korea is anathema to many people, but there are multiple ways it could be done. Trump has said he "would be honored" to meet with Kim under the right circumstances, but the better way to start is to engage lower-ranking officials in several topics at different times and places.

We should not put a precondition on such talks, as we have done by insisting vaguely that "conditions must be right" or that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before talking. Such preconditions ensure that talks will not happen.

I favor making contact with the North Korean government, but it has to be done very carefully. How, when and under what circumstances are difficult and delicate matters that will have to be worked out. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's recent statement that we are not seeking regime change is a good first step.

A total rollback of the North Korean nuclear program is not a realistic goal at this time. But as Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center has argued, it is reasonable to seek an intermediate goal of persuading North Korea to freeze its nuclear capability, put an end to testing and cap the number of its nuclear weapons. Such an arrangement would let North Korea keep its deterrent capability and would not require a change in government, but it would prevent a breakout of the nuclear threat. It could be a first step toward an ultimate goal of a non-nuclear North Korea.

The situation requires patience and a cool, steady hand, with full appreciation for the risks involved. There are no guarantees of success. It could take a lot of time. But launching an attack now is a bad alternative with likely calamitous results. So is doing nothing while North Korea develops the capacity to destroy us.

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