Could talks prevent war with North Korea? In U.S., little appetite to find out

At one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, several blue and gray buildings sit within the oddly named Panmunjom Peace Village, watched over by twitchy guards from North Korea and South Korea.

It is here in the Demilitarized Zone that initial talks could start — and possibly lead to broader negotiations — that might defuse a growing military confrontation between the United States and North Korea. Assuming such talks ever occur.

For months, a large segment of Korea experts have urged Trump administration to open a dialogue with Kim Jong Un on ending or at least freezing the north’s nuclear weapons programs. But those experts are rarely heard in Washington, either in congressional hearings or amid consultations within the White House.

“They don’t want to hear it,” said Andrei Lankov, a Korea specialist based in Seoul and an advocate for negotiations. “It is against the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times.”

For many in Washington, any talk of negotiating with Kim Jong Un is repulsive, a nonstarter. That opposition has intensified following North Korea’s recent missile threats and a leaked U.S. intelligence report that Pyongyang has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead.

Critics say negotiations would create the appearance of submitting to nuclear blackmail and would enhance the stature of Kim, one of the world’s most brutal dictators. They also say Kim can’t be trusted to carry out commitments in any deals, given North Korea’s record of reneging.

Lankov agrees these are legitimate concerns. But along with several other Korea specialists based in the United States and South Korea, he sees negotiations as the only realistic option left in dealing with North Korea. “Unfortunately this option is now getting worse,” said Lankov, citing the recent war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean officials. “But all the others are very bad.”

Lankov, who was born in the Soviet Union, is one of the world’s few Korea specialists to have lived in North Korea, having attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University in 1985. For the past three decades, he’s been a leading researcher and critic of the Kim family regime. But starting roughly eight years ago, he started warning that the United States might have to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

A U.S. military strike against North Korea’s weapons facilities won’t work, he argues, and could prompt Pyongyang to bombard Seoul and its 10 million people with rounds of artillery and chemical weapons. A U.S strike would likely fail to destroy some of Kim’s hidden missiles and warheads and could “provoke the second Korean war that no one wants,” Lankov said .

Another option would be to squeeze Pyongyang financially by imposing sanctions on China, North Korea’s main trading partner, and by seeking to end Chinese exports of oil to the country. Lankov argues that Beijing would never tolerate such a squeeze because it could lead to economic and political meltdown in North Korea.

“Does China want civil war and anarchy in a nuclear-armed country on its border?” Lankov asked. “No, it does not.”

For Lankov, the only remaining option is to negotiate a freeze on North Korea’s weapons programs, providing breathing space for further talks. “You might be able to negotiate a deal for no more nuclear tests, no more missile launches, in exchange for political concessions, and, as always, money.”

Lankov’s view is roughly in line with that of many other current and former diplomats. In July, six former governmental officials, Republicans and Democrats, sent Trump a letter, urging negotiations to “avoid a nuclear catastrophe.”

“Tightening sanctions can be useful in increasing pressure on North Korea, but sanctions alone will not solve the problem,” wrote the former officials, which included former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Secretary of State George Shultz and former governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson.

While North Korea might be willing to engage in talks, it is not at all certain it would abide by any resulting accords. The United States last engaged in serious negotiations with North Korea soon after Kim Jong Un succeeded his father in 2011. That led to a 2012 food aid agreement for North Korea. But the United States scrapped the deal after Kim engaged in a missile test and tried to disguise it as a weather satellite.

Last month, South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae In, proposed “military-to-military” talks with North Korea at Panmunjom in the heavily guarded DMZ. Moon’s goal was to reopen lines of communications that could defuse any conflicts along the militarized border. But North Korea did not respond to the overture, suggesting that Kim is uninterested in talks with South Korea.

Jeffrey Bader, who was President Barack Obama’s top Asia adviser from 2009 to 2011, agrees the United States should approach North Korea with a negotiating proposal. But like other analysts, he doubts North Korea would agree to freeze its nuclear weapons program, much less scrap it, as the Trump administration is seeking.

Bader said North Korea has “an ultimate goal” of becoming a credible nuclear power. “At the end of the day, the strategy may have to be containment and deterrence,” he said.

In South Korea, the new administration of Moon Jae In is more optimistic, although Moon himself has been cautious in advocating diplomacy, possibly concerned about damaging his early relationship with Washington.

Moon Chung In, one of the president’s top national security advisers, says he sees opportunity in negotiating with North Korea on economic opportunities, including aid and a lifting of sanctions.

“My own view of North Korea’s leadership is that it is internally cruel, but externally, extremely pragmatic,” said Moon in a recent interview in Seoul. “On that ground, we have room for negotiation.”

Over the past seven months, U.S. Senate and House committees have held numerous hearings on North Korea. Invited experts tended to be dismissive of seeking a nuclear freeze, and the idea is generally opposed by Trump’s top advisers.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has criticized proposals for a freeze, saying it would enshrine North Korea as a nuclear state. More recently, however, Tillerson has issued more open-ended overtures to North Korea, including assurances that the administration isn’t seeking to topple Kim Jong Un.

“We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek the collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel,” Tillerson said in Aug. 2 comments to reporters.

One problem for Tillerson is that other Trump advisers, and Trump himself, have not been consistent in their messaging toward North Korea.

In July, CIA Director Mike Pompeo spoke favorably of regime change in North Korea, saying that the United States should try to “separate” Kim Jong Un from his nuclear weapons. Trump on Tuesday warned North Korea of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” before saying on Thursday he would “always consider negotiations.”

“Trump is incapable of messaging in a consistent and coherent way, and directing the administration to message consistently and coherently,” said Bader, a senior fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. Another problem, he said, is that Trump and Tillerson have yet to make key appointments that would help form a negotiating team.

One outcome sought by both North Korea and China is for the United States and South Korea to suspend or end their annual joint military exercises. Both Beijing and Pyongyang view these military maneuvers as provocations, and some U.S. advocates of negotiations say this issue should be on the table.

But David S. Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel affiliated with Georgetown University, said that the U.S.-South Korea alliance would be put at a disadvantage if troops could no longer train together.

“If we were to end our exercises and North Korea were to continue training, they would be able to attack our forces and we would not be at a state of readiness where we could deter them,” said Maxwell, who previously served in South Korea in the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Lankov agrees it is unrealistic to end the military drills, but the scale of some recent exercises have been excessive, he said. “That should be avoided,” he added.

This report was financed in part through a travel fellowship provided by the East-West Center, the Korea Press Foundation and the Pacific Century Institute.

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth