On the contrary, it is North Korea that refuses to talk to us

Whenever North Korea tests a nuke or a missile, like the rest of you, I immediately turn to the very people who got us into this mess for their sage wisdom …

and to their More Cowbell Chorus on Twitter, for their acerbic and penetrating critiques about why Donald Trump should beg Kim Jong-un for the deal that, inexplicably, neither Clinton nor John Kerry could get during Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency. Just kidding! Because if there was a magical freeze ray they could have aimed at Pyongyang, rest assured they’d be basking in the Nobel Committee’s applause by now.

I’ve been watching this paper chase for a quarter of a century now and writing about it here for just over half of that. The harder we try to talk to Kim Jong-un, the less he listens, and the more op-eds I read that wail, “More Cowbell!” This paragraph, from our long-form piece in Foreign Affairs, brings us up to how loudly we rang that bell until Obama left office.

If anything, Trump’s diplomats have tried even harder. We’ve had back-channel talks with the North Koreans throughout this administration, and we’ve been broadcasting through the press that we’re looking for signs that Pyongyang is ready to talk to us, provided it’s serious about keeping its last umpteen agreements to denuclearize. Those efforts have been “discouraging” and have made “little progress” toward getting Pyongyang to talk to us. The Irish also tried to send a delegation to Pyongyang (the North Koreans told them to bugger off). The North Koreans know how to reach to us when they want to. They aren’t reaching, because they don’t want to talk about nukes, period. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t tell us to talk to North Korea if you aren’t listening to North Korea. Why are we unable to hear either their refusals or their silence?

Too many of the journalists who are covering this story either don’t know or choose not to report just who refuses to talk to whom. This NBC article is particularly egregious in getting the story wrong. It also gives the impression (mistaken, I hope) that our Special Representative for North Korea policy, Joe Yun, is off-script and lobbying sympathetic members of Congress to push Trump into “prioritizing diplomacy,” and maybe, to drop our demand that North Korea agree that we’d be talking about denuclearization — something not even Barack Obama did. You may like Trump and you may loathe him, but every civil servant’s job — especially one of such global prominence — is to represent the President’s views, not his own. I’m no fan of Trump’s war threats, but the suggestion that the administration refuses to talk to Pyongyang is flatly false. It’s another example of why public distrust of the news media, while sometimes unfair and often indiscriminate, has a firm basis in reality. (Journalists, if you want to protect your profession, police your colleagues who get it wrong.)

If Pyongyang isn’t interested in nuke talks, then is there anything worth talking about at all? Yes, I can think of one thing. Mil-mil talks might help prevent unexpected incidents, defections, and miscalculations from leading to war. Needless to say, they are not the place to discuss sanctions or concessions of economic or political value. Yes, we should totally do those! Except that Pyongyang walked out of them in 2013. Despite the pleas of Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister, it refuses to come back. If I had to guess why, I’d say it’s because Pyongyang wants tensions to be high. That’s how it manipulates all of the Twitter bed-wetters who are now taking up Pyongyang’s talking points by telling us to give up on denuclearization entirely.

Yet the more Pyongyang insists that its nukes — disarmament, a freeze, whatever — are non-negotiable, the more op-eds the usual suspects write, oblivious to Pyongyang’s insistence that it doesn’t want to talk to us. Won’t just one of those op-eds please address that seemingly dispositive point? Have the Smartest People in the World reached an impasse with reality? Doesn’t diplomacy require someone to be willing to interact with you? If it’s just a thing we do in front of other people do to please ourselves, can’t we find a Special Envoy job for Louis C.K.?

Even worse, the more deals Pyongyang breaks, the more desperately some of these authors counsel us to withdraw from our “core” interests to chase the next deal. I’m tired of repeating myself: if an armistice, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, two IAEA safeguards agreements, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, two agreed frameworks, a joint statement, and the Leap Day Freeze Deal didn’t stop Pyongyang before now, I can’t see how another piece of paper could. The burden is on them, not me, to answer that. It’s as if the impulse for a deal has lost all contact with the interests it would achieve, or the consequences a bad one would incur.

Mouse Trap Seminar from Michael Baker on Vimeo.

I can’t see what we’re all suddenly wetting our beds now, other than the fact that we’re within nuclear striking range of an impulsive malignant narcissist who stands close associates up in front of antiaircraft guns and pulps them for falling asleep in meetings, or who murders his estranged siblings with weapons of mass destruction in other countries’ airport terminals. Sure, you say, that’s not a good place to be! And far worse — piece of paper or no piece of paper, he’ll sell any technology to any willing buyer. But really, why should we be surprised? We’re exactly where I said we’d be years ago. The time to spring into frantic action was then, and in the exact opposite direction from the one where our exhausted Brain Trust still points. They demand a quick fix, but the fix is not quick. It’s the fix we ought to have started years ago, when The Blob was selling us the fierce urgency of the Iran deal, “ending” the war in Iraq, and “strategic patience” with North Korea.

Maybe — just maybe — North Korea’s multi-generational, quarter-century-long pursuit of a nuclear ICBM means that Kim Jong-un wants a nuclear ICBM, not diplomatic recognition, soft mood music, or a lasting peace that would undermine the entire raison d’etre of his wretched little kingdom. Maybe Kim Jong-un wants what he says he wants — (a) missiles, (b) nukes, and (c) South Korea. His scientists were designing (a) and (b) while Obama had stronger sanctions on Belarus and Zimbabwe than against North Korea, while Obama outsourced his North Korea policy to Xi Jinping and made a deliberate choice to let Pyongyang launder the money it used to nuke up through our banks while he waited for Kim Jong-un to want a deal as much as John Kerry did.

Lastly, please don’t try to argue that the running failures of the last three presidencies are Donald Trump’s fault. God knows there are plenty of hideous things you can pin on Donald Trump, but not this one. It makes you look ridiculous, and you’re actually making me feel sympathy for Donald Trump. Kim Jong-un is doing exactly what he would have done if Hillary had won, if Bernie had won, or if Trump had stuffed his face with hamburgers at direct talks that His Porcine Majesty adamantly does not want until he’s safely nuked up and ready to dictate terms to us.

Kim Jong-un did this despite our pre-2016 sham sanctions, despite Obama’s 2012 freeze deal (that it reneged on), despite Bush 2007 denuke deal (that it reneged on) and despite Clinton’s 1994 denuke deal (that it reneged on). He didn’t whip up a missile in a month because Trump said mean things to him. He didn’t call Barack Obama a “wicked black monkey” because Obama said mean things to him, and despite the softest of soft-line policies (if it can be said that Obama had a North Korea policy at all, though Pyongyang still raged about how “hostile” it was). He certainly isn’t threatening South Korea because Moon Jae-in is saying mean things to him.

I’m no defender of Trump’s bellicose tweets, but some of those who blame him for the failures of a quarter-century create the impression of putting tribe over country, regardless of any objective and fair assignment of responsibilities, faults, and historical lessons. Not only are these people persuading me to defend a president I disagree with on numerous matters of style and substance, they’re giving me new reasons to see that on this particular issue, his administration has shown better judgment than the lot of them. The most obvious exception is his Twitter habits, where I’ll give South Park the last word (21 seasons in, they’ve still got it).


  1. Not really. They’ve gone since 1953 without going too far and I doubt that there even is a too far with the present South Korean government.


  2. Going to far also assumes they actually care about repercussions. A regime that collapses a mountain because of the number of nuclear tests it conducted, is probably not considered a ‘careful’ regime. Little rocket man has his escape plan and overseas money, I don’t think he gives a rat’s ass about being careful.