Trump must visit North Korea to negotiate with Kim Jong Un

Trump must visit North Korea to negotiate with Kim Jong Un
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As tensions continue to mount between the United States and North Korea, direct negotiations, including a possible meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, may be the only way to de-escalate this crisis. On a practical level, direct diplomacy would enable the two countries to move past their bellicose rhetoric and focus on the key issue: security. North Korea fears a U.S. invasion and the U.S. is afraid that North Korea is close to acquiring, if it hasn’t already, the means to attack American soil with a nuclear weapon.

To resolve the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy publicly promised the Soviet Union that he would not invade Cuba. Further, he privately told Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that he would remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey. Allowing Khrushchev to save face was instrumental in getting him to back down.

Trump is no Kennedy and Kim is no Khrushchev, but a fundamental tenet of any conflict resolution remains the same: To get what you want, leave your opponent a way out. It is foolish to think that sanctions will force Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions. He doesn’t care about sanctions. His constituents are hardliners in the politburo, which is why he will never give in without getting something big in return that enables him to save face.

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One option is to publicly announce that the U.S. will not invade North Korea. Additionally, the U.S. could suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, at least temporarily. Doing so would not impact our warfighting capabilities should military action in fact be the only option. In return, the immediate objective would be for North Korea to suspend all ballistic missile tests and production and testing of all nuclear bombs, with verification through independent inspections

Getting North Korea to destroy its existing nuclear bombs, however, should be negotiated as part of a much bigger deal, which is a peace treaty with South Korea. At the end of the Korean War, the two sides signed an armistice so technically they are still at war, which keeps each side on a constant state of alert and increases the likelihood that one side may misinterpret the other side’s intentions.

A peace treaty would make a grand bargain much more attainable in which the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea bring North Korea into the community of nations through economic incentives and other diplomatic measures in return for dismantling the regime’s nuclear weapons. Public saber-rattling between Trump and Kim has made the likelihood of any negotiation virtually impossible, which is why a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim, as crazy as it sounds, may be the only way to get to yes.

Meeting with the enemy is not unprecedented. President Nixon met with Mao Zedong in 1972, becoming the first sitting president to visit communist China. Nixon rightly anticipated that opening up China would be in our best interests, not only as a way to isolate the Soviet Union but also to reduce the likelihood of war between the U.S. and China, two arch enemies with nuclear weapons.

If a Democrat had made the same trip, he would have been criticized as soft on communism. But Nixon, given his staunch anti-communist reputation, was able to deflect criticism from conservative Republicans. “Only Nixon could go to China” became the catchphrase to describe a rapprochement between the two countries that only he could have pulled off.

In a similar way, only Trump could meet with North Korea. His “fire and fury” rhetoric has established him as the intimidator-in-chief, so switching from threats of annihilation to direct diplomacy would not jeopardize his tough guy image, abroad or at home. Trump and Kim are two sides of the same coin. Both men seek reverence more than anything else.

Given their penchant for self-admiration, they might actually get along just enough to move past their war of words and progress towards mutual security and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Nixon referred to his visit to China as “the week that changed the world.” By negotiating with North Korea, Trump may have an opportunity to save it.

John B. Stimpson served as a senior aide to Massachusetts Governor William Weld from 1994 to 1998. He later served as deputy director of the Massachusetts Office of International Trade and Investment.