Unlike most of the appease-now scolds, Jeffrey Lewis also writes things that are worth reading. He can snark with the best of them. He can be genuinely interesting when he sticks to technology, despite his occasional lapses into tendentiousness. His imagery analysis and geolocation are as persuasive as his policy views are surreal. If Lewis never talked policy at all, frankly, I might never question him, but when he talks about what a swell and moderate guy Shen Dingli is, or why the breakdown of the 2012 Leap Day Deal was our fault because we didn’t specify that the freeze covered both missile and “satellite launch vehicle” tests, I can’t help questioning his judgment. (Point of order: after seeing Lewis argue that last year, I asked someone who was at the negotiations whether we’d clarified that point. He said we had.)
Of course, one of the problems with our North Korea deals is that they tend to produce either unwritten agreements, or agreements that are brief, vague, and subject to reinterpretation. But as the ungrammatical expression goes, if you want a deal real bad, a real bad deal is what you’re going to get. And judging by Lewis’s latest at Foreign Policy, he thinks our diplomats should be chasing a deal with Kim Jong-un with a fistful of begonias and a desperation unseen since John Hinckley failed to win Jodie Foster’s love. Lewis’s twist on the freeze idea you’ve seen circulated so much lately is that we should cut a deal to help North Korea’s “peaceful” satellite program in exchange for them freezing or giving up their missile programs. (Yes, I know. Even Lewis concedes that “there isn’t much difference.”)
But if you actually research the record, our diplomats have been chasing North Korea for one deal or another for the last several decades. In the last eight years alone, President Obama sent former President Clinton and Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang in 2009, sent Joseph DeTrani twice in 2012, and sent James Clapper in 2014. In 2011, Bosworth met North Korean diplomat Kim Gye-gwan in New York. Next came the Leap Day 2012 freeze agreement, similar to what engagement advocates call for today, and which Pyongyang reneged on shortly after signing it. Obama tried to send Ambassador Robert King to Pyongyang in 2013, but North Korea canceled the visit at the last moment. There were various Track 2 meetings between former U.S. officials and North Korean diplomats as recently as last year. In the weeks leading up to the first 2016 nuclear test, U.S. and North Korean diplomats discussed the parameters of a peace treaty negotiation, but Pyongyang insisted that its nuclear program would not be on the agenda. As recently as last June, U.S. diplomat Sung Kim met North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui in Beijing. Mind you, this is just what’s available in the open sources.
All of these “talk to North Korea” people can’t possibly be so uninformed as to be ignorant of this history. And if they aren’t, they’re really being disingenuous. If they know how much we really have talked to (or at) North Korea, they can’t really mean “talk to North Korea;” they must really mean “pay North Korea,” either by paying blackmail (which we’d call aid, with the understanding that we wouldn’t monitor how the money was spent) or relaxing the sanctions that are our last hope of putting any real pressure on Pyongyang to reform and disarm.
Lewis (and Joel Wit, and John Delury, et al.) would probably respond that all of these talks went nowhere because of our stubborn precondition that Pyongyang commit to nuclear disarmament. After all, if the talks aren’t really about disarming them, what are we even talking about? Except that according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in 2014, the State Department got Japan and South Korea to agree to “a moratorium on nuclear weapons development” in exchange for “timed infusions of economic assistance and international treaties.” To my eyes, that looks a lot like dropping our preconditions and (given Pyongyang’s history) a de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status. The White House subsequently (sort of) denied this, and because Pyongyang didn’t bite, we never found out whether Congress would have paid for it.
If you’re about to ask, “What’s the harm in talking?,” the answer is, “Potentially, plenty.” A freeze is really a pay-and-pray policy that’s as endless and inconclusive as Kim Jong-un wants it to be. Depending on what we concede, it could weaken South Korea’s defenses and give Kim Jong-un the time and money to get over the nuclear finish line. I’ve laid all that out before, but I’ve never said it better than former Obama administration official David Straub did here. Of course, there’s another necessary party to any nuke deal whose views Americans tend to forget while we’re busy shouting at each other. Yesterday, that party responded directly to Lewis:
DPRK Will Bolster up Capability for Self-Defence in Every Way
A recent issue of the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy said that since the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs have already made too rapid progress and they are considered as an important affair of the state, there is little likelihood to give up them for the purpose of improving the relations with the U.S. It seems no diplomatic agreement can succeed in pressing the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapon and missile programs, but diplomacy is still necessary and there is an opportunity to prevent the situation from going to worse as it has not yet test-fired ICBM, the magazine added.
It went on: The Trump administration should propose the DPRK to adjust military drills in 2017. During the Clinton administration, the annual joint military drill Team Spirit had been suspended. It is necessary to cut down the scale of the military drills, though belatedly.
This reflects the present situation in which the structure of muscle between the DPRK and the U.S. has dramatically changed and proves that the U.S. is the arch criminal escalating the tension and, therefore, it should move first.
The DPRK’s access to nuclear weapons is an inevitable outcome of the U.S. heinous hostile policy toward the DPRK pursued for a long time.
It is the stand of the DPRK not to hesitate or make any concession in bolstering up its capability for self-defence.
The U.S. is sadly mistaken if it thinks the nuclear deterrence of the DPRK is a matter for political bargaining and economic deal after putting it on the negotiating table.
Explicitly speaking once again, the DPRK’s bolstering of its nuclear force is the exercise of the right to self-defence to counter the U.S., the world’s biggest nuclear weapons state bringing the danger of a nuclear war to hang over the Korean peninsula.
The DPRK will continue to bolster up its capability for self-defence and preemptive attack with the nuclear force as its pivot as long as the U.S. and its vassal forces persist in its nuclear threat and blackmail. [Ri Hyon Do, Rondong Sinmun]
Translation: they’re not that into you. Whenever I rehash this debate — and lately, that has been often — I tend to point out that Pyongyang has already broken an armistice, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreements, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, two agreed frameworks (in 1994 and 2007), a 2005 joint statement, a 2012 nuclear and missile freeze, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions. If insanity has a working definition, it’s the notion that what we really need now is another piece of paper.
I hope, one day, the time will come when diplomacy has some prospect of success. Obviously, we aren’t close to that time now. If that time comes at all, it will only come when we’ve exerted enough financial and political pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime that he sees nuclear disarmament as the only way he can survive. I’d like to think that Americans on both sides of this debate ultimately want the same thing — to avoid war. Rather than arguing with each other over futile and Sisyphean proposals that neither the U.S. Congress nor Kim Jong-un would accept anyway, wouldn’t our energy be better spent on building the pressure and leverage we’ll need to make diplomacy work?