Why We Must Talk to North Korea - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A Hwasong-15 ballistic missile during the military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean People's Army at Kim Il Sung Square on Feb. 8, 2018, in Pyongyang, North Korea.


Because a long, complicated process is better than nothing.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS

The North Korean offer of talks possibly leading to denuclearization of the peninsula — reported Wednesday by the South Korean team just returned from Pyongyang — is an offer we should view skeptically, but not hesitantly. As long as the United States goes into this clear-eyed, resists premature concessions and keeps in mind the history of such talks, this could begin to move things in the right direction.

There are of course lots of reasons for skepticism. After all, we have been down this road with North Korea before. Pyongyang and Washington signed a 1994 agreement that saw North Korea abandon its plutonium production. But that fell apart after Pyongyang was caught cheating in 2002: U.S. intelligence discovered that the North was preparing to enrich uranium as an alternative path to a bomb. Then, from 2007 to 2009, we came close in talks that fell apart over disagreements on how to verify an agreement and when North Korea had resumed its missile testing.

Assuming talks actually occur, there will be a price to pay for progress.

Another reason for skepticism is concern that Kim Jong Un may be using this offer and potential talks to buy time to further refine his nuclear program, although he has reportedly offered to halt missile tests and refrain from further nuclear tests — all of which remains to be seen.

But these earlier failures shouldn’t stop us from trying; we should see them instead as laboratories for lessons learned. One lesson is to keep the pressure on Kim during talks — not with harsh rhetoric, which could poison the effort, but with continued sanctions. The aim would be not to give away any of that until our goal of denuclearization is in sight. We’ll have to be on guard against the classic North Korean tactic of gaining gradual concessions they can pocket before breaking off talks, which means this will require tough diplomacy.


What might have led Kim to this point? There are several possibilities. It may be that he is even further along in his program than we know. Some experts, having read publicly available data, say the North’s largest missile can lift a 1,000-kilogram payload, which is impressive and could mean that Kim has little work left to do to miniaturize the warhead. Little is publicly known about progress on a guidance system, and from what we can see he has not yet conclusively demonstrated an ability to hit the U.S. But other countries often approach testing with a standard different from ours.

Additionally, even those of us who’ve been critical of President Trump need to acknowledge that his approach, seemingly reckless at times, may have gotten Kim’s attention. I’ve even heard this from Asian diplomats. As to whether Trump should meet with Kim Jong Un, the proposed date of May is probably too soon — unless it is just to bless ongoing negotiations. Best to wait until if and when negotiators have made a breakthrough that the two leaders can formalize. It was inevitable that Trump would accept this offer to meet — ultimately a reality TV–like event that this president could hardly resist. But it will require careful preparation to ensure that it fosters forward movement — assuming talks actually get underway and make some progress.

There will be a price to pay. At a minimum, it would include full U.S. recognition of North Korea, the lifting of sanctions, new international aid and a security guarantee that the U.S. would not seek to undermine or attack the regime. But Kim may also push for a formal treaty ending the Korean War, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South and a pullback of U.S. missile defense installations.

The Trump administration, being short-handed generally and having lost so many diplomats, may not yet fully realize how complicated this can get. The Art of the Deal will be no guide. American intelligence agencies will bear a huge share of the burden along with diplomats. The first step in any arms control negotiation is to know what the other side actually has. U.S. intelligence will have to estimate this of course. But another typical step is to request a declaration from the other side of what they have. This is often enormously difficult because they will not want to show their cards and will often want concessions just for that. But once a declaration is obtained, U.S. intelligence has to judge whether it is accurate. Then, if talks ever reach the point of agreement on reductions, our intelligence agencies will have to assess whether the North is complying, and Congress will insist on testimony about that. All of this will be very controversial, so unless this is unlike any previous such situation, we are looking at a long, complicated process.

All this said, we can turn to the wisdom of Winston Churchill for insight. “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war,” the British prime minister said. And that neatly sums up where we are.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories