While the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea is gyrating in all directions—mostly bad—someone in Washington is keeping hope alive. Namely, despite escalating tensions which appear to be approaching a violent breaking point, there might be a peaceful way out of what some pundits are calling a “slow-motion Cuban missile crisis.”
Reports emerged last week that American and North Korean diplomats were holding secret meetings in New York City. In fact, the “New York” channel between the United States and North Korea has existed since the early 1990s. For decades after the Korean War, there were no official contacts between the two countries as Washington pursued a policy of isolating Pyongyang. The Reagan administration shifted gears in the late 1980s and began a policy of limited engagement with North Korea because of concerns about its nascent nuclear weapons program and a desire to support South Korea’s policy of reaching out to Pyongyang. American and North Korean diplomats in Beijing held occasional meetings to discuss important issues. But as the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear program mounted at the beginning of the Clinton administration, the U.S. decided that it was more convenient for executive branch officials to hop on an airplane shuttle for the short ride from Washington to New York to meet North Korean diplomats at the United Nations than to endure the grueling 14-hour trek to Beijing. Those New York sessions often took place in isolated, dingy basement rooms at UN headquarters beyond the prying eyes of reporters.
The New York channel has had highs and lows. In its heyday in the 1990s, frequent meetings laid the groundwork for the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, the first denuclearization arrangement with the North—as well as other initiatives to improve bilateral relations. The channel’s low point came at the end of the Obama administration, when the North Koreans shut it down after U.S. sanctions for the first time personally targeted Kim Jong Un in July 2016. But the channel had already fallen on hard times, prompting North Korean officials to rename it the “Kenneth Bae” channel since, according to them, the Obama administration only wanted to meet to press for the release of the detained Korean American missionary who spent 18 months in a North Korean jail from 2013 until late 2014.
Almost immediately after the election of President Trump, North Korean government officials, meeting with myself and other former U.S. officials in Geneva, stated that they were willing to wipe the slate clean and revive the New York channel once the Obama administration left office. Moreover, they also expressed an interest in starting a security dialogue with the new administration, one that could serve as a stepping-stone to the resumption of formal negotiations for the first time since the Six Party Talks ended in 2008. This wasn’t new news; the concept of “talks about talks” had been discussed in meetings between the North Koreans and former U.S. officials in Geneva, Berlin, London, and Ulan Bator dating back to fall 2013. But it was important that they were still open to the idea with a new administration entering office.
While those contacts have resumed, getting a serious security dialogue off the ground will be much more challenging. First, the North Korean view has been that initial discussions must be held without preconditions. They would not agree to the Obama administration’s demands for much of its last few years in office that Pyongyang sign on to giving up its nuclear program even before discussions were held, a non-starter for any country since it would mean preemptive capitulation. Rather, they insisted that denuclearization could be a subject of discussion for these preliminary talks and might even be addressed in formal negotiations. But as time has gone by, as the North has conducted test after test of missiles and nuclear weapons, and as Pyongyang’s WMD arsenal has grown, it has become clear that achieving denuclearization, if possible at all, would have to be a long-term, not a short-term objective.
A second challenge for backchannel talks is to agree to tension-reducing measures intended to create the right political atmosphere that would give formal negotiations some breathing room to move forward. The North has indicated that it could agree to a temporary end to threatening missile and nuclear tests, a requirement Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has frequently mentioned for resuming negotiations. But that would come at a price. The United States would have cancel joint military exercises with South Korea that Pyongyang finds threatening. For the same reason that the U.S. will not sit at the negotiating table while Pyongyang continues missile and nuclear tests, North Korean Foreign Ministry officials will refuse to negotiate while the U.S. and South Korean militaries practice killing their leaders and Americans fly bombers over the Korean peninsula capable of dropping nuclear weapons on the North.
Pyongyang first floated the proposal in a private meeting in Ulan Bator in 2014 and then publicly six months later. It was quickly rejected by the Obama administration. American pundits argued that it would seriously undermine Washington’s ability to protect its ally, South Korea, and didn’t seem to care that it would check Pyongyang’s continued development of missiles and nuclear weapons. However, if Washington had taken the time to discuss the idea with the North Koreans, the U.S. would have learned that they did not mean the complete cancellation of all exercises, only the end of activities intended to show that the U.S. and South Korean could remove Kim Jung Un from power and use nuclear weapons against the regime. As any informed military planner will tell you, that’s possible while also maintaining the readiness of American forces on the Korean peninsula. And had Pyongyang halted testing in 2015, Washington wouldn’t be facing the imminent threat of a North Korean ICBM today.
It is unclear whether backchannel contacts can still take us down this peaceful road and help ease tensions. Aside from pressing security challenges, the Trump administration is rightly concerned about securing the freedom of three Americans still detained in North Korean jails, particularly in the aftermath of the late spring release of a fourth detainee—American university student Otto Warmbier—who tragically died soon afterwards. That will not be easy as Washington and Pyongyang hurl threats back and forth. But Mr. Warmbier’s release might never have happened without backchannel discussions between the U.S. and North Korean diplomats. If the three remaining detainees are freed, that might also pave the way to a further easing of tensions and provide some momentum to diplomacy, although the relentless growth of the WMD threat and the deterioration in U.S.-North Korean relations from bad to worse will make it harder to move down this path.
There are reasons, however, for both sides to find a way out of this confrontation. The North Koreans face the immediate danger of an armed clash with the U.S. that could lead to the destruction of their country. Easing tensions could also help lessen the North’s dependence on China, a country it distrusts almost if not just as much as the United States, by opening the possibility of better ties with the United States and South Korea. In the long run that might help the North modernize its economy—an important priority for Kim Jung Un. The Trump administration confronts the horrendous prospect of an armed clash that could result in millions of casualties and trillions of dollars in economic damage in South Korea and Japan, triggering a word-wide recession if not depression. But beyond that, Washington’s confrontational and sometimes erratic behavior in dealing with Pyongyang is undermining confidence in its alliance leadership at a time when Asians have serious doubts about America’s commitment to remaining a Pacific power.
Most Americans have forgotten or never knew that the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, was not solved by public threats or by playing a successful game of nuclear chicken. Rather it was solved through quiet backchannel diplomacy between Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and attorney general, and the Soviet ambassador in Washington who crafted a face-saving solution for both countries. Let’s hope for the same peaceful outcome today.