By Jack Devine and Yoshi Yamamoto
Neither President Donald Trump's "Fire and Fury" nor Kim Jong-Un's most recent threat about Guam provide a path to sensibly resolve the growing North Korea nuclear crisis. On the other hand, South Korea's new President, Moon Jae-in, has made overtures to its neighbor to hold direct military talks. While these efforts may appear to run counter to the Trump administration's hard line, they create a much-needed opportunity to change the course of our dealings with Kim Jong-Un.
His successful launch of two Hwasong-14 missiles in July set a new bar for engagement with the world and resulted in new, tougher United Nations' sanctions. Now armed with a verified delivery system for nuclear attack, North Korea rightfully commands our imminent attention.
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The hermetically enclosed country and its brutal tactics make intelligence collection about Kim Jong-Un's plans and interactions problematic. His ruthless and seemingly erratic psychological profile make reliance on deterrence deeply unsettling. While efforts like "Left of launch," missile shield development and other alternative paths should be undertaken, they cannot be our only line of action. It is at this moment that we need to resurrect the six-party talks buoyed by robust sanctions passed by the United Nations' Security Council.
The first iteration of six-party talks among North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States took place from 2003 to 2007 and eventually led to a nuclear shutdown and path toward diplomatic normalization. Although Pyongyang's nuclear progress slowed, it all fell apart in 2009 when North Korea conducted another nuclear test.
While claiming it would never relinquish its nuclear program, Pyongyang seemingly longs for recognition from the international community. Moreover, it clearly and desperately needs financial aid and resumption of trade to ensure continuity of the regime, best secured by the lifting of international sanctions and an easing of tensions with its potential economic partners. Over the long run, Pyongyang would like to receive long-standing security guarantees through the normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Japan as well as the demilitarization of the Korean Peninsula.
Japan will likely be willing to join in because it feels the most pressing existential threat from Pyongyang. China wants to ensure that the regime in Pyongyang does not collapse, causing a refugee crisis and ceding a strategic territorial buffer. Similar to China, Russia enjoys a steady flow of cheap labor and advantageous trade from North Korea, while helping Pyongyang causes sufficient turmoil in the international order. For both the Russians and Chinese, these nuclear tests provide a welcome preoccupation of American attention away from many other pressing international affairs. But multilateral efforts without China and Russia will not carry a sufficient incentive to compel compliance. A diplomatic path is probably the only way we can draw these parties in.
Moon's current proposal for bilateral talks with Kim is an effort to improve communications and reduce the risk of military clashes along the 38th parallel. His overture is a first step that could create conditions to prompt China to float a resumption of talks. Progress to bring all the parties together is expected to be slow, but there are several areas that could slowly help build trust.
In addition to all parties negotiating a lessening of economic sanctions and defusing military tension, one area where Japan holds leverage to engage both North and South Korea would be a willingness to discuss mutual grievances associated with its historical occupation of Korea. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's strongman bona fides would make him a legitimate interlocutor. For its part, Japan would like to have a full inquiry into North Korean abductions of its citizens from the '70s and '80s and see all of its abducted citizens returned.
Detractors are right to remind us that North Korea never really abandoned its program during the previous six-party talks; but there is no other viable path than to start talking with the principal parties. And we have learned from previous errors - North Korea is an unreliable negotiating partner and it will not easily yield even to the most crippling pressure. Despite the past, there is a pressing need to start a dialogue with hopes of molding it more effectively going forward. Even while negotiating, we must remain skeptical and verify that North Korea is indeed holding its end of the bargain.
The end goal is a treaty with Kim Jong-Un that includes the incremental denuclearization (or at a minimum a cessation on further development of its program) based on a robust verification protocol - in exchange for diplomatic and economic reintegration with the world. The alternative is military action.
Devine is a former CIA chief of worldwide operations, president of The Arkin Group, a business intelligence firm, and author of "Good Hunting." Yamamoto is a Japanese policy analyst and author of "Taken! North Korea's Criminal Abduction of Citizens of Other Countries."