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The Twisted Logic of Not Talking to North Korea

If we accept the logic that talks between the two Koreas may ultimately fail, but are still useful, why don’t we apply that same logic to talks between the United States and North Korea?

When it comes to North Korea, be prepared for deja vu. Lots of it.

That’s the advice a colleague once gave me when I started working on Korea policy issues as a State Department diplomat in the Obama administration. She was right. Despite North Korea’s seeming unpredictability to the unacquainted, its yearly cycle of alternating between provocations and charm offensives was so predictable I often found myself looking at the calendar and thinking: “here we go again.”

Diplomacy also offers opportunities to probe North Korea’s intentions — and make our own more clear. Over many meetings with the same foreign counterparts at the State Department, I often found it was possible to gauge where they stood by how their talking points changed over time — what was new, what was left out, how they reacted to U.S. messages. Not talking with North Korea deprives us of this basic benefit of diplomacy.

By talking with the North, South Korea also opens up opportunities to take the initiative and put the onus on Pyongyang. If North Korea responds positively, great. If not, North Korea’s response still tells us something about its intentions — and highlights its bad faith for the international community, including China. That gives us more justification to tighten pressure. Meanwhile, the United States remains in a reactive position. It has only offered vague assertions that the door is open to talks under the right conditions, but failed to take the initiative in public and force Pyongyang to respond on our terms. Tactically, our position gives North Korea all the freedom of action and realistically makes even basic talks unlikely by insisting the talks accept the premise that North Korea is going to denuclearize — something it is not going to do.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert recently characterized the U.S. policy as “maximum pressure to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.” Instead, our policy should be maximum pressure to bring concessions at the negotiating table. We don’t have to concede anything, but standing around waiting for pressure to work with a proud and determined adversary with little to lose is a bad strategy. It’s what critics of the Obama administration’s North Korea policy accused it of relying on: strategic patience.

The logic of those who oppose U.S. engagement with North Korea often rests on the “here we go again” effect — we’ve seen it all before, and we know talks can only be futile. It’s certainly how I feel about North-South rapprochement; what we’re seeing is part of a longstanding North Korean playbook and the probability that it will ultimately end poorly — again — is high. But for all of the reasons I’ve laid out, these talks still serve useful purposes. And if we accept the premise that inter-Korean talks are both futile and useful, we can’t then turn around and reject U.S. talks with North Korea because they’re likely to be futile.

Let’s not maintain any illusions that the prospects for progress through U.S.-North Korea talks are high. But, as in the North-South talks, we won’t lose by trying — and hey, we might even gain a few things, too.

But for now, at least, all we can do is watch the drama on the Korean Peninsula continue to unfold, as it has many times before.

Here we go again.

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