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A Path Forward on North Korea

Mainstream U.S. media depicts North Korean Kim Jong-Un as crazy and his country as an insane asylum, but there is logic in their fear of “regime change,” a fear that only negotiations can address, says ex-U.S. diplomat Ann Wright.

By Ann Wright  |  May 9, 2017

Originally published in

Why are discussions for a peace treaty with North Korea not an option to resolve the extraordinarily dangerous tensions on the Korean peninsula? At long last, experts with long experience with the North Koreans are publicly calling for these negotiations.

Many in Washington’s think tanks finally acknowledge that the Obama policy of “strategic patience,” which relied on sanctions and other pressures to frustrate North Korea, did not result in a slowdown in the nuclear weapon and missile programs, but instead provided room for the North Koreans to expand their research and testing of both nuclear weapon and missile technology.

These experts now acknowledge that the U.S. government must deal with the reality that sanctions have not slowed North Korea’s programs and that negotiations are needed.

William Perry, who was Secretary of Defense from 1994-1997 during talks with the North Koreans that led to an arms control framework, wrote in a Jan. 6 op-ed in the Washington Post that some Western perceptions of the North Koreans as crazy fanatics are false and meaningful negotiations are possible.

Perry wrote: “During my discussions and negotiations with members of the North Korean government, I have found that they are not irrational, nor do they have the objective of achieving martyrdom. Their goals, in order of priority, are: preserving the Kim dynasty, gaining international respect and improving their economy.

“I believe it is time to try diplomacy that would actually have a chance to succeed. We lost the opportunity to negotiate with a non-nuclear North Korea when we cut off negotiations in 2001, before it had a nuclear arsenal. The most we can reasonably expect today is an agreement that lowers the dangers of that arsenal.

“The goals would be an agreement with Pyongyang to not export nuclear technology, to conduct no further nuclear testing and to conduct no further ICBM testing. These goals are worth achieving and, if we succeed, could be the basis for a later discussion of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.”

Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker — an expert on the North Korean nuclear program, emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (U.S. nuclear program), and the last U.S. citizen to see part of the North Korean nuclear program in 2010 — also called for talking with the North Korean government.

A Trump Envoy?

In a Jan. 12 op-ed in the New York Times, Hecker wrote: “Mr. Trump should send a presidential envoy to North Korea. Talking is not a reward or a concession to Pyongyang and should not be construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Mr. Trump has little to lose by talking. He can risk the domestic political downside of appearing to appease the North. He would most likely get China’s support, which is crucial because Beijing prefers talking to more sanctions. He would also probably get support for bilateral talks from Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow.

“By talking, and especially by listening, the Trump administration may learn more about the North’s security concerns. It would allow Washington to signal the strength of its resolve to protect its allies and express its concerns about human rights abuses, as well as to demonstrate its openness to pragmatic, balanced progress.

“Talking will help inform a better negotiating strategy that may eventually convince the young leader that his country and his regime are better off without nuclear weapons.”

John Dulury, in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs in an article titled, “Trump and North Korea-Reviving the Art of the Deal,” said, “If the United States really hopes to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula, it should stop looking for ways to stifle North Korea’s economy and undermine Kim Jong Un’s regime and start finding ways to make Pyongyang feel more secure.

“This might sound counterintuitive, given North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human rights record. But consider this: North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction. And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into Northeast Asia.

“With Kim now feeling far safer at home (because of economic progress despite international sanctions), the United States needs to help him find a nonnuclear way to feel secure along his borders. A comprehensive deal is the best way to accomplish this, but it will require direct dialogue with Pyongyang.

“Trump should start by holding back-channel talks. If those make enough progress, he should then send an envoy to Pyongyang, who could negotiate a nuclear freeze (and, perhaps, as a goodwill gesture on the part of Pyongyang, secure the release of the two U.S. citizens imprisoned in North Korea). Trump could then initiate high-level talks that would culminate in a meeting between Kim and himself.”

Seeking Talks

The National Committee on American Foreign Policy is attempting to hold informal talks with the North Korean government in this month. Since 2003, the committee has sponsored other talks in Germany and Malaysia. The committee requested the Trump administration to allow the talks to be held on U.S. soil, however, as with the Obama administration, the Trump administration did not issue visas for a North Korean delegation to come to the U.S. due to the continuation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the holding of two Americans in North Korea.

Ultimately, a peace treaty is the key to having peace on the Korean Peninsula. Virtually unknown to the American public due to the media blackout on anything positive from North Korea is the North Korean annual request for negotiations for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that was signed to end the Korean War in 1953, sixty-four years ago.

In January 2016, as in many previous years, the North Korean government specifically stated that it would end its nuclear testing if the U.S. and South Korea would end military exercises and sign a peace treaty. The U.S. responded that until North Korea ends its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. would not talk about a peace treaty. So there is a deadlock.

Yet, it is not rational to think that the North Korean government will stop its nuclear weapons and missile testing until they are guaranteed that the United States will not attack them and has signed a peace treaty to that effect. The North Korean government feels its nuclear weapons program is what is keeping the U.S. from adding North Korea to its list of targeted attempts at violent regime change.

Having seen what has happened to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen under the Bush and Obama administrations, the North Korean government will not give up what it perceives to be its major deterrent to an attack by the U.S. and South Korea — its small but growing nuclear weapons program. (On a personal note for North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un, all he has to recall is what happened to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after they surrendered their arsenals of unconventional weapons.)

And the U.S. is signaling that “regime change” is still its policy. The annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises practiced military operational plans with the mission of the overthrow of the North Korean government. The not-so-subtle title of the 2016 exercises was “Decapitation.”

Dulury, the author of the Foreign Affairs article, suggests that to convince Kim to freeze the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the missile programs, as a first step, the Trump administration must design a package of security guarantees such as scaling back or suspending U.S.-South Korean military exercises and delaying the deployment of new U.S. military equipment such as the THAAD missile to South Korea.

Ending the War

Then, convening four-power talks among China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States to negotiate and sign a treaty formally ending the Korean War, as Pyongyang has long demanded, would provide the basis for halting further development of its nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs and allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country to verify compliance.

Of course, other issues eventually would be raised such as improving North Korean human rights, relaxing restrictions on travel abroad, allowing foreign humanitarian organizations more freedom in North Korea, and closing political prison camps.

But direct negotiation is the only way to determine what Kim may be ready to do. As President Trump said during the campaign, he would be willing to talk with Kim as long as there was “a ten percent or a 20 percent chance that [he could] talk him out of those damn nukes.”

As Dulury wrote, “Wishful thinking about North Korea’s imminent collapse has compromised U.S. strategy for far too long. Obama’s strategic patience, envisioning a day when ‘the Korean people, at long last, will be whole and free,’ wasted the early years of Kim Jong Un’s reign in the mistaken belief that the regime would not survive long following Kim Jong Il’s death.”

Dr. Hecker agreed: “Talking is a necessary step to re-establishing critical links of communication to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.”

Former Defense Secretary Perry added, “We should deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

North Koreans are very smart and resilient. As well-documented by historians, their country was purposefully destroyed by the United States during the Korean War and they rebuilt it as best they could with minimal outside assistance. Yet, despite virtually no external help for the past 35 years ago – since the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s – and despite expanding international sanctions over the past ten years, North Korea has been able to develop its nuclear program and its missile program and put satellites into space — all, of course, at the expense of funding the level of social and economic programs it would like to have for its citizens.

If the international community really wants to resolve the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and give the North Korean people a chance to rejoin the community of nations, a peace treaty that gives North Korea the assurances it needs for its survival is the first, not the last step.

Ann Wright served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and retired as a Colonel. She was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years and served in U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned in 2003 in opposition to President Bush’s war on Iraq and in her letter of resignation mentioned the lack of effort of the Bush administration in resolving issues with North Korea. She went to North Korea in May 2015 as a part of the 30-woman delegation of Women Cross the DMZ that held a two day peace conference with 250 North Korean women.


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