President Donald Trump likes to be known for his deal-making, and now he has the opportunity to make deals that can impact world peace and security, not just real estate or other business deals for his profit. North Korea would be a great place to start.
Former President Barack Obama described North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs as the most pressing international security problem when he briefed Trump just before leaving office. President Obama, who scored impressive diplomatic successes with the Iran nuclear agreement and the opening to Cuba, failed in his policy of "strategic patience" toward North Korea, refusing to engage in official negotiations for eight years while the nuclear and missile programs progressed and regional security concerns worsened.
Promising unofficial talks, known as "track two diplomacy," were held as recently as last fall in Malaysia, led by former U.S. officials Robert Gallucci and Leon Sigal, who had succeeded in negotiations with North Korea to freeze their nuclear weapons and missile programs for almost a decade beginning in 1994. These talks have been discontinued, and the Trump Administration recently refused visas to North Koreans who were supposed to travel to the US for further talks, in retaliation for a recent ballistic missile test.
China, which is also very concerned about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, recently proposed a sensible, reciprocal approach North Korea had previously advocated, namely a halt to joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises (often called war games) in exchange for a halt to missile tests. The Trump Administration rejected this, but ought to reconsider.
While nobody wants North Korea to have nuclear weapons, its pursuit of them as a potential deterrent to overwhelming US, South Korean and Japanese military, economic and political might is unfortunately logical. Adding to the long-standing military imbalance is the recent deployment of THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, by the US in South Korea.
THAAD is a missile system which aims to shoot down short-and-medium-range ballistic missiles as they descend to their targets. North Korea, China and Russia see THAAD as a destabilizing weapon, fearing it could thwart their ballistic missile-carrying nukes. In North Korea’s view, THAAD could possibly be part of a US/South Korea first-strike strategy, in which THAAD defends South Korea from a North Korean attack in retaliation for a US strike, whether conventional or nuclear.
Finally, China, Russia, India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals. US submarines with nukes also patrol the region, so it’s a scary neighborhood brimming with the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Trump seems to have a serious bee in his bonnet about his predecessor. In addition to his original support and funding for the "birther" movement falsely claiming Obama was not a US citizen and his recent charge that Obama bugged Trump Tower, Trump has disparaged Obama’s 2009 New START nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia, the Iran nuclear agreement, and of course the Affordable Care Act or "Obamacare."
Regardless of how one feels about any of those issues and Trump’s assertions, he now has a chance to do something Obama didn’t, which is to increase global and regional security by at least halting North Korea’s advances on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology.
The basic contours of what North Korea wants are well known, at least first steps, and it’s not rocket science. Not necessarily in this order, they are: a formal peace treaty to replace the supposedly temporary armistice at the end of the Korean War in 1953, direct talks with the United States, and relief from what it sees as a confrontational military posture by the US, South Korea and Japan, cessation of war games being the most obvious step.
On several occasions during the election campaign last year, Trump made positive comments about talking with North Korea. Now he can, and should, put that into practice. As Winston Churchill famously said, "to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war."