U.S. policymakers are working with a menu of policy options to meet President Donald Trump’s commitment that Pyongyang will not threaten the United States homeland with the most destructive of weapons. These options range from pressuring and persuading China to turn off its vital economic support and toughening UN Security Council sanctions to threatening military action. Trump’s public threats via Twitter have assumed greater significance against the backdrop of the annual U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises to test defense preparations in the event of a conflict with North Korea.
Given the heightened tensions, this year’s U.S.-South Korean military exercise might well create fears in the minds of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as to whether the United States was preparing to attack the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK). U.S. decisions to send the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the nuclear powered guided missile submarine USS Michigan to join the existing force in the area, the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea, and the deployment of U.S. drones clearly have done little to reassure the North Korean leadership about U.S. intentions.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s provocative response in the form of nuclear threats against the United States and South Korea, and its test-firing of missiles into the sea near Japan, as well as preparations for yet another nuclear test, have upped the ante even further. Perhaps realizing that the game of nuclear chicken that the United States and the DPRK are playing is in danger of leading to a fatal collision, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo have suggested in recent days that the United States is open to diplomatic negotiations. However, they have made clear that negotiations would have to follow North Korea agreeing to suspend its nuclear and missile testing, where the ultimate aim of the negotiations would be North Korea’s full denuclearization.
This negotiating stance is a recipe for deadlock. It is instructive in the light of the current crisis to think about how an earlier nuclear crisis between the two sides was resolved. In the summer of 1994, the DPRK was threatening to reprocess plutonium at its Yongbyon facility and to end International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. Fearing that the DPRK was preparing to build nuclear weapons, the Clinton administration considered a range of coercive policy options similar to those being weighed by Trump today, including sanctions in the UN Security Council and a pre-emptive military strike on the Yongbyon complex. The North Koreans responded as today with threats of pre-emptive military action against South Korea that pushed the peninsula toward war. While current public policy discussion has not included talking to the North Koreans without preconditions, this is exactly how the 1994 nuclear crisis was de-escalated.
Former President Jimmy Carter, an experienced negotiator and mediator, having successfully crafted the Camp David Accords 15 years earlier, offered his services to the Clinton administration. Although Clinton was uncomfortable with Carter’s mission to Pyongyang, he approved it. Carter’s interlocutor was the father of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung. Marion Creekmore, Jr., who accompanied Carter on his mission, wrote in his 2006 book, A Moment of Crisis, that Kim told Carter, “The central problem is that we lack trust, and creating trust is our most important task. The distrust comes from the lack of contacts between us.”
Carter was able, through two face-to-face meetings, to both understand Kim’s intentions and develop interpersonal trust with a leader who was ideologically the antithesis of everything Carter stood for. As a result, Carter secured Kim’s agreement that there would be no reprocessing of plutonium at the Yongbyon facility and a freeze on the major elements of the nuclear program whilst a new round of talks proceeded. The North Koreans also agreed that the IAEA inspections could continue. In return, Carter secured Clinton’s agreement to Kim’s request that the United States support the sale of two light water proliferation-resistant reactors. Kim had told Carter, according to Creekmore’s account, that “if a commitment is made to furnish us a light water reactor, then we will immediately freeze all our nuclear activities.”
The Carter mission to Pyongyang was successful because he and Kim were able to better understand one another by sitting down face-to-face. They developed, during these personal meetings, a bond of trust that helped to bridge the distrust between their two nations. As we argue in our new books, this is not a one-off example. Face-to-face diplomacy has long allowed leaders and policymakers to both better understand each other’s intentions and develop trust in one another that they will live up to commitments. Crucially, by meeting for face-to-face negotiations, leaders, or their representatives in the case of Carter, can often find ways to meet the interests of both sides without resorting to military action.
In short, it may be time to send Carter, or a similar surrogate more amenable to the president, back to Pyongyang. A crisis that threatened to engulf the region over two decades ago was defused by face-to-face diplomacy and it is time to explore whether the current crisis can similarly be de-escalated.
Critics of this position will retort that the deal that Carter and Clinton negotiated in 1994 failed to stop the DPRK from developing nuclear weapons because the North Koreans cheated, and would cheat again if given the opportunity. Blaming the DPRK for the collapse of the cooperation that Carter’s mission made possible ignores the history of broken promises and strategic blunders on both sides, as each came to believe the other was exploiting the agreement for unilateral advantage. Consequently, it is wrong to assume that because 12 years later, North Korea tested and developed nuclear weapons, this was an inevitable outcome of the negotiations Carter and Clinton entered into in 1994.
Diplomacy of the Carter kind in 1994 is an exercise of power, not weakness. It could today allow the United States to both pressure the DPRK to abandon its nuclear ambitions and defuse the current crisis without costly intended, or unintended, military action. If reports that the Trump administration has asked Carter not to attempt any type of mediation on this occasion are true, the administration should reconsider its position on negotiating face-to-face with the North Koreans.
Marcus Holmes is Assistant Professor of Government at The College of William & Mary. His book, Face Value: Face-to-Face Diplomacy, Social Neuroscience, and International Relations, is under contract with Cambridge University Press.
Nicholas J. Wheeler is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. His latest book, Trusting Enemies is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.