Montana World Affairs Council: With North Korea, discussions better than bombs

Robert Seidenschwarz

“She loves me, she loves me not.”

Remember the childhood game of pulling the petals from the flower as one recited the above rhyme? One always seemed to get the desired result from manipulating the sequence of how one pulled the petals.

This “game” with North Korea will not be as easy to manipulate to get your desired outcome.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright once compared nuclear talks with North Korea to climbing that nation’s rugged mountains: “We would reach the top of one, only to find another peak still towering ahead.”

Thirty years of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations climbing the peak of a more diplomatically prudent path did not achieve a face-to-face meeting between North Korean and U.S. leaders. The goal has been and continues to be North Korean denuclearization.

What did we witness? Several days have passed since this historic summit concluded. Can we agree on one fact, that regardless of how you view the current administration or Kim Jong Un, the meeting was historic within the context of U.S. and North Korean relations.

It is important to understand that diplomacy as historically practiced has protocols for behavioral and structure standards. The current administration led by President Donald Trump is unconventional by every standard of diplomatic protocols.

This presents a challenge for the numerous governmental functionaries who must operate within this environment. Add to this the endless commentary from media, political pundits and party loyalists from both sides, all of whom are sucking the oxygen out of a 24-hour day to ensure their views and criticisms are heard.

There is no shortage of breaking news to report a breach of etiquette, contradictory statements, lack of proper condemnations of human rights violations, etc. Get used to it. In the current political environment, never an opportunity will be missed to gain a perceived advantage no matter how ephemeral that moment may be.

What is the public to make of all this? How do we measure whether the president is going into these negotiations with rose-colored glasses on? Far more experienced politicians and administrations have fallen for the promises of Kim Il- Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong Un, only to have all promises broken once concessions and resources were delivered.

What are we to make of Kim Jong Un? Is he willing to take the political risk to himself and as importantly, those whose power and privilege depend upon the current status quo, to allow the North Korean people to join the 21st century?

Until time and evidence prove differently, here is what I will continue to believe about the future trajectory of  the current regime in North Korea.

North Korea is a small, impoverished and isolated country. They call themselves the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Seriously? North Korea has the distinction of being the most corrupt country in the world (jointly with Afghanistan ), and is a major financier and supporter of the international drug trade, human trafficking, cyber warfare attacks upon public and private sector entities, nuclear proliferation, money laundering, state sponsorship of terrorism, political prison camps, torture, the songbun social classification system, and abdication of foreign citizens.

Oh, did I forget to mention that North Korea now has nuclear weapons that can threaten their neighbors and in due time the U.S. mainland? At the moment, they are not a good candidate to be welcomed to Mr. Rodgers neighborhood.

Is it a step in the right direction that the U.S. and North Korea are having public contact and talks? Absolutely!

There is a great deal more at play here than then just the national interests of the U.S. How does China in particular play into the discussions and outcome? I don’t believe there will be any binding agreements without China’s cooperation and tacit approval.

What are Russia’s considerations if the talks are viewed as detrimental to it’s strategic interests? How do the South Korean people view this possible rapprochement? What are the implications to them, as the stated long=term goal of the North Korean regime is a unified peninsula under its control?

Do you know that the Korean people of the North and the South are by history, cultural and family one people. It’s only as a result of the end of the World War II that the country was split into North and South by competing factions.

Even here in the U.S., the possible success of the Trump administration in securing a binding agreement has political consequences to those who would seek to gain from the failure of these discussions.

There are implications for the citizens of North Korea and their future as well. Will this accelerate the opening of North Korea by what has been denied by three generations of a family dictatorship?

On balance, I view this movement of the two antagonists as a small but necessary step in the right direction. Better discussions than bombs. Expect the unconventional to be the norm. Get used to breathless proclamations of dire consequences as a result of perceived failures and concessions.

Will tourists be visiting Pyongyang and staying in the recently built Trump Towers North one day? Stranger things have happened. Stay tuned. This is just the first pitch thrown in a nine-inning game.

Robert Seidenschwarz is president emeritus of the Montana World Affairs Council.