Trump wants talks with North Korea, so Nikki Haley shouldn't push isolation

Trump wants talks with North Korea, so Nikki Haley shouldn't push isolation
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“This is a serious situation,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyAmerican women can have it all State denies report ex-spokeswoman received Fox salary while in administration Trump rules out Haley joining 2020 ticket MORE said of North Korea’s nuclear program on Sunday. “But,” she added, “what we have managed to do is, the United States has led, and the international community is all with us in isolating North Korea. That’s a very important move. They feel it. They are getting paranoid. They are stressed out about it. But we are going to continue keep up the pressure, because we have to.”

Haley made the rounds of Sunday shows this week, reiterating her talking points about isolating Pyongyang at each stop. On Fox, she praised U.S. leadership in prodding “the entire international community to basically out North Korea and say that they had to denuclearize and cut everything off,” and on CBS Haley again described a concerted, U.S.-led international effort to “be forceful” with the Kim Jong-un regime.

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These comments are the public face of Haley’s campaign for diplomatic isolation of North Korea, a strategy at odds with President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE’s repeated expressions of interest in diplomacy and inutile for reaching a place of productive negotiation with North Korea.

 

Why is Haley preaching isolation when Trump, in moments of prudence, talks engagement? And why does she think partial isolation can pressure the self-isolated “hermit kingdom” into conversation?

On the first point, it is evident to any observer of this administration that the president (not to mention his advisers) is of multiple minds on the North Korea question. Trump careens from “fire and fury” to “little rocket man” to suggesting Kim could someday be his friend.

Still, ever bolstered by his faith in his own deal-making prowess, Trump consistently returns to proposing negotiations. As recently as last month, he said in an interview “sitting down with people is not a bad thing” and he is “certainly be open to doing that” with Kim — an arrangement that cannot be made if isolation makes Dennis Rodman our primary diplomatic liaison.

One possible explanation for the apparent incongruity between Trump’s desire to talk and Haley’s push for silence is that the president has been persuaded this isolation will bring Pyongyang to the table. Haley suggested as much in her CBS interview, and Trump’s November comments indicated he does not believe the time for the sit-down is now. “[W]e’ll see where it goes,” he said then of possible negotiations. “I think we’re far too early.”

If that’s the case, Trump must be disabused of this notion. The North Korean regime is already committed to the self-imposed isolation of juche, which, in the regime’s own words, means “independence in politics, self-sufficiency in the economy, and self-reliance in national defense.”

The United States has no official diplomatic relations with Pyongyang to curtail, and the Kim regime’s most valuable allies — China and Russia — will not join Haley’s plan for “maximum pressure.” Furthermore, if U.S. allies like Britain, Germany, and Sweden shutter their diplomatic contacts with North Korea, Washington will no longer be able to rely upon their mediation.

Exactly how will this pressure force Pyongyang into constructive talks?

Notably, our ally South Korea — the country most at risk of retaliatory strikes from North Korea—does not share Haley’s enthusiasm for isolation. “Opening effective communication channels should be pursued in order to deliver the international community’s voice to the isolated and secluded North Korea,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Monday.

“The South Korean government plans to start with contact” with Pyongyang, she added, to facilitate military communication, reunite families separated by the split peninsula, and seek “a more meaningful inter-Korean relationship.”

On this point, Washington should follow Seoul’s lead. “‘Maximum pressure’ has not changed North Korean behavior, and pressure tactics were never going to work,” as Daniel Larison recently argued at The American Conservative. “

The State Department can issue condemnations, but there is no ‘reversing’ North Korea’s progress in developing its nuclear weapons and missiles,” he continued, “and there is no chance that Washington can pressure them into giving up something so important to them.”

What is possible is the option Trump keeps revisiting: talks. We maintain robust deterrent capabilities — overwhelming nuclear and conventional weapon superiority — but diplomacy is our best resource for bringing stability to the Korean Peninsula and, yes, eventually (reasonably) normal relations with what we must admit is an already-nuclear North Korea.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.