Formal Diplomatic Talks Matter to Standoff between US and North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said, “We have lines of communications to Pyongyang … We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.” His remarks confirm that both Washington and Pyongyang are gauging, through a diplomatic back channel, whether their counterpart is willing to open up dialogue. This is the first time that a top U.S. official has held out the possibility of talks between the two countries since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. Mr. Tillerson’s comments are notable because they come after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials: His words might be the result of some sort of U.S. diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

The back-channel communications between the adversaries are known to have been established in New York, where the United Nations is headquartered, and in other cities around the world. Since they are used for informal talks, these back channels are less than the proper line through which to directly address North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.

Meanwhile, Tillerson’s statement was followed in quick succession by that of State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. “Despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting the collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilizing forces north of the DMZ, North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization.” It is questionable whether the Trump administration is capable of providing this level of detail without having high-level talks with North Korea.

U.S.-North Korean talks on North Korea’s nuclear missile program date back to the Clinton administration, or 1993, when the recalcitrant regime conducted its first successful missile test and withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Since then, the two countries have sent their top officials to Washington and Pyongyang. In 1993, Jimmy Carter visited the North Korean capital to negotiate with Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of the country. Under George W. Bush, who took the firmest stand against Kim’s regime among previous U.S. presidents and referred to the rogue nation as an “axis of evil,” U.S. Special Envoy Jack Pritchard met with Li Hyong Chol, North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations in June 2001, six months after Mr. Bush’s inauguration. During the Obama administration, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Stephen W. Bosworth, went to Pyongyang as an envoy and met with North Korea’s then Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju.

Today, under the Trump administration, the adversaries are engaged in an aggressive war of nerves over starting up talks. Recent belligerent exchanges of personal insults and threats of war between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un – with the president warning that the U.S. would “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, and Kim saying that he was considering the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history” – are a lot like a game of chicken, where the two sides try to see who will initiate dialogue. All in all, Washington and Pyongyang are failing to find a way out of this impasse, as their claims are in adamant opposition to each other, with the U.S. saying denuclearization first, and North Korea countering with no nuclear disarmament without dialogue.

Oct. 10, 2017, is the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Unless the two nations reach a point of agreement on opening up dialogue, it is highly likely that Kim Jong Un will continue to conduct provocative acts. The isolated regime should abandon its brinkmanship, which is driving up tensions around the world, as further engagement in the deadly game will only court U.S. military action, not talks. The Trump administration should also recognize the contradiction in its policy on denuclearization as a precondition for talks – this barrier for U.S.-North Korean talks abets North Korea’s advancement toward full intercontinental ballistic missile nuclear capability. To resolve the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear missile program, both Washington and Pyongyang are left with no option but to have formal diplomatic talks and communicate with sincerity.

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