Welcome Back, Kim Jong Un. Want to Talk?

It’s time for Washington to negotiate with the North Korean dictatorship
Illustration by Bloomberg View; Photographs by Getty (2)

The “Where’s Waldo?” speculation over Kim Jong Un’s six-week vanishing act—was he ill? under house arrest? in a cheese coma?—might have been funny if it hadn’t involved the leader of a harsh dictatorship with a 1.2 million-man military, nuclear weapons, and enough firepower to incinerate Seoul in minutes. Now that North Korea’s supreme leader has resurfaced, it’s time for U.S. and South Korean leaders to sit down and talk with their North Korean counterparts.

Kim has been signaling his interest in engaging with South Korea since his New Year’s speech—an interest that was manifested in the high-level delegation that visited South Korea. Even after an exchange of naval gunfire and shoot-downs of leaflet balloons, North Korea has maintained its openness to dialogue and called for military-to-military talks on avoiding such incidents. Despite indications last spring that it would stage a fourth nuclear test, North Korea has so far refrained from doing so.

Yet North Korea is also building up its arsenal in alarming ways, developing a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the continental U.S. That’s still a ways off, but no one should doubt that North Korea would like to have such a weapon. The logic of deterrence may still obtain, but no U.S. president will want to consider trading Los Angeles for Seoul.

South Korea has called North Korea’s diplomatic bluff by suggesting a date for the talks that Kim’s delegation proffered. Inter-Korean “trustpolitik,” built on the expansion of commercial and social exchanges, offers the best immediate hope for reducing tensions. But the key to long-term peace lies in dialogue between the governments in Washington and Pyongyang—which are still in a state of war.

U.S. officials acknowledge that Kim is unlikely to halt his nuclear weapons program. At the same time, they insist the U.S. won’t sit down with North Korea until it’s willing to discuss giving up the program. That’s a recipe for deadlock. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to amass more weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. needs to ditch its “first-give-up-the-nukes” condition for discussions and work with its partners (China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) in the failed Six-Party Talks on ways to advance their shared interest in a stable, non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. The U.S. and its negotiating partners also share an interest in better enforcement of United Nations sanctions, which seek to retard North Korea’s WMD progress, block its conventional arms deals, and prohibit the importation of luxury goods such as British-made yachts, Italian snow groomers, and Swiss ski lifts. The U.S. also needs to build a strong consensus with its partners on what sanctions they will impose, either jointly or unilaterally, when North Korea commits its next violation of the various Security Council resolutions directed against it, as it will.

To adapt a Cold War adage, U.S. negotiators must “distrust, but verify.” First, they have to be willing to sit down and talk.

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