Why diplomacy with North Korea works better than ‘fire and fury’

North Korea Kim Jong Un
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North Korea Kim Jong Un

President Trump’s statement that North Korea will face “fire and fury” “like the world has never seen” if it continues to make threats against the United States is reckless and alarming. The statement is particularly troubling because it doesn’t make it clear what conditions might prompt the president to launch a nuclear attack. Sowing uncertainty on the potential employment of nuclear weapons is extremely dangerous. In the worst case it could spark a nuclear conflict, a disastrous outcome that serves no one’s interest. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to soothe the fears generated by Trump’s rhetoric, suggesting that is was merely a reiteration of the fact that “the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack,” not a threat to launch a nuclear first strike in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s words.

{mosads}Before the president’s latest outburst, his administration had been alternating between military threats and suggestions that negotiations are possible. Early last month, Trump made a statement that could be read as a military threat or as the opening gambit in an effort to resolve the problem diplomatically: “I don’t like to talk about what I have planned, but I have some pretty severe things we’re thinking about. That doesn’t mean we’re going to do them. I don’t draw red lines.”


Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster has asserted that the administration will “exhaust our other opportunities” before considering a military strike. And Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that the United States will “lead with economic and diplomatic efforts” to resolve the current crisis.

The recently passed U.N. sanctions on North Korea represent an effort to use economic pressure to get Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear program. Now is the time to add a diplomatic component to this effort. 

Diplomacy is the only approach that has a chance of making a difference. As U.S. military leaders have long known, even a conventional military attack on North Korea could prompt Pyongyang to launch a massive artillery attack on the South Korean capital, Seoul, potentially causing hundreds of thousands of casualties. And even at that great cost, there’s no guarantee that a U.S. strike on North Korea could successfully eliminate its nuclear capabilities.

A nuclear strike could be even more disastrous, not only for the people of North Korea but also for allies in South Korea and throughout the region. That’s why South Korean President Moon Jae-in is strongly against the Trump administration taking unilateral, preemptive military action against North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program.

The truth is that diplomacy is the only thing that has ever worked to slow North Korea’s nuclear efforts. The Clinton adminstration’s 1994 framework agreement with North Korea stopped Pyongyang’s plutonium production — the surest route to large numbers of nuclear bombs — for nearly a decade. It was only after the George W. Bush administration abandoned this effort — over the initial objections of former Secretary of State Colin Powell — that North Korea’s nuclear program resumed in earnest, leading to the situation today, where that country has a small stockpile on nuclear bombs and is making progress on building a missile that can reach U.S. territory.

In short, once we stopped talking and relied solely on sanctions and nuclear threats, North Korea’s nuclear program accelerated. When we talked, and offered economic and strategic incentives, we were able to substantially curb Pyongyang’s pursuit of the bomb.

The best outcome in the short-term would be talks to freeze North Korea’s nuclear warhead and ballistic missile programs as a first step towards total dismantlement. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has endorsed this approach, asserting that “We have to start talks with the North, and the minimum conditions I believe will be the North’s promise to stop additional nuclear and missile provocations and to freeze its nuclear program. Only then, can we have a full-scale talk about nuclear dismantlement.”

In a call with President Trump earlier this week, the South Korean leader emphasized that “South Korea can never accept a war erupting on the Korean Peninsula” and argued that the North Korean nuclear threat must be resolved in a “peaceful, diplomatic manner.”

A two step approach — freeze then roll back — makes sense given North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s main rationale for developing nuclear weapons, which is to fend off the prospect of regime change, as happened to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein when they either abandoned their nuclear development programs or dismantled their nuclear arsenals. Political reassurances that the same fate will not befall Kim Jong Un if he eliminates North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile arsenal will have to be an integral part of any talks. Maximalist demands that Pyongyang abandon its arsenal early in the process will be non-starters. 

It’s time to tone down the rhetoric and get on with the urgent business of diplomacy.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, advocating cooperation, transparency and accountability in global relations. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags James Mattis North Korea Rex Tillerson William D. Hartung
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