By the spring of 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was desperate to end the Vietnam War. His desperation was displayed for all the world in the peace talks that began that year.
The Paris peace talks to end the war began in early May 1968 and hit an immediate snag. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Cao Ky refused to sit at a table with the North Vietnamese-sponsored National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese refused any negotiation to which the VC weren’t an equal party. The seating arrangement and the shape of the table were debated for months.
After President Richard Nixon’s election, he ordered his team to continue the shape-of-the-table debate instead of walking away from that charade and resuming the bombing of the North. They did so because they, as much as Johnson’s team, knew we were negotiating from a position of grave weakness.
After the seating arrangements were agreed to the negotiations continued for years while the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong gradually gained ground. In 1973 a “cease-fire in place” agreement was authorized by President Nixon, leaving thousands of North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong inside South Vietnam. The agreement provided that the two Vietnams were to be reunified peacefully.
We know how that worked out. Desperation diplomacy never works.
In late September, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that America was in direct contact with North Korea, saying “We are probing, so stay tuned…We ask, ‘would you like to talk? We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.” He added, “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”
Until last week, President Trump’s position has been that the Norks must stop their provocations before negotiations could begin. There’s been no cessation of their threats of war and more substantial provocations. In the past year, they’ve fired 23 missiles in 16 separate launches — some over Japan or landing near it — and detonated a nuclear device which they claimed was a hydrogen bomb.
Their latest missile test demonstrated a missile that could probably deliver a nuclear warhead — or an electromagnetic pulse attack — to any part of the United States. Their threats of nuclear war against the United States have been made almost weekly.
In a speech last Tuesday to the Atlantic Council, Tillerson displayed a Johnsonesque desperation. He said that he wanted to negotiate with North Korea without any preconditions. He said, “Let’s just meet and let’s talk about the weather if you want and talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table, if that’s what you’re excited about. Then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work towards.”
It was a beggar’s plea, a pre-emptive confession of defeat that would be expected from the loser of an ongoing hot war. Tillerson made his supplication doubly worse by the unmistakable reference to the shape-of-the-table debate that became a symbol of our defeat in Vietnam.
Trump neither refuted nor confirmed Tillerson’s remarks, but he apparently reined Tillerson in. On Friday, Tillerson walked back his Tuesday position in remarks to the UN Security Council. He said “A cessation of North Korea’s threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin. North Korea must earn its way back to the table.”
This isn’t usually how things are set up to work diplomatically. The cabinet official is usually the bad cop and the president — playing the statesman — is the moderating influence, the good cop. This isn’t a “good cop/bad cop” approach. It’s more like “good cop/dummkopf.” Tillerson has proven himself no smarter or more skillful a diplomat than former basketball player Dennis Rodman who wants to take over the negotiations with North Korea.
Trump, too, is clueless. He called Russian President Putin on Friday to seek Putin’s help. After the call he said, “We would love to have his help on North Korea. China is helping. Russia is not helping. We’d like to have Russia’s help — very important.” It was a confession of weakness, not as bad as Tillerson’s, but nevertheless inept.
Trump evidently doesn’t understand that neither China nor Russia has any incentive to help us defuse North Korea. Both trade with the Norks (China clearly violating the UN arms embargo by sending missile launch vehicles and other assets) and both are quite happy to see us tied in knots with an unending crisis.
Because the answer surely isn’t clear, the question must be asked: What do we believe can be accomplished by negotiating with North Korea?
As I’ve written before, the North Koreans thrive on military provocations. They prove their worth to themselves by threatening us with missiles and nuclear weapons. They’re reportedly now building an arsenal of biological weapons to up the ante again.
As the February start of the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea approaches, we can count on the Norks to try to disrupt the games with more missile launches and probably another nuclear detonation. (Their only disincentive for the latter is that the mountain under which they test nukes may collapse because of the next test.)
At this point we have to understand that the Norks aren’t just aiming to blackmail us into giving them oil, food, and money to get them to behave for at least a short while. That they succeeded in with Bill Clinton. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama ignored what the North Koreans were doing.
The Norks’ ambitions have grown as their nuclear and missile arsenals have grown in capability. They want to scare us sufficiently that we’d not interfere if they tried to conquer South Korea. Or Japan. Or any other neighboring nation. We have to recognize that disarming North Korea of its missiles and nuclear weapons is something they will never do peacefully.
Winston Churchill once said that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” So it is, but our negotiator needs to have goals that would benefit us. There are few, if any.
Disarming North Korea of its nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles is the only goal that can improve the situation. That goal cannot be reached without China’s direct and forceful intervention.
The old adage, “deal with the organ grinder, not the monkey,” is entirely apposite. Initially, the greatest benefit to American and our allies’ security would be to have the Chinese be a party to the negotiation, thereby taking responsibility for the results. North Korea dances to China’s tune, so negotiating only with Kim’s regime will necessarily fail to produce any substantial result. South Korea is our ally, and it obviously has to have a seat at the table as well.
China, of course, won’t want to do that but our demand that they do will increase pressure on China to help rein in the Norks. We can play that game for months, if not years, while we still demand other preconditions for negotiation.
Other U.S. actions can be taken, and preconditions for negotiations demanded, including the cessation of provocations that the president has always demanded and Tillerson was for after he was against.
One action that the president should take is to replace Tillerson as soon as possible. A tougher, more adept diplomat should take his place as soon as possible.
Between now and the time the China gambit fails — and a demand that China take a seat at the table will probably fail — we need to take other actions.
First, we have to engage in a crash program to put a missile defense system — something like the “Brilliant Pebbles” system of the 1990s — in orbit. Doing so would effectively negate the North Korean threat and would just as effectively negate much of the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian threats. The technology exists, but the money won’t be spent unless the president demands it.
Simultaneously, in secret, we must urge the Chinese to replace the Kim regime with a more pliant puppet. The Chinese want neither a reunified Korean Peninsula under a U.S.-aligned government nor stronger U.S. allies — Japan and South Korea — around it.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change his nation’s pacifist constitution (which we wrote after World War II) to add a provision that would enable Japan to maintain a military force that could provide more than self-defense. His proposed change is a recognition of the North Korean reality and to the extent we can, we should advocate for it.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In has resisted further deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system, but his resistance is reportedly fading. We should deploy additional THAAD batteries in South Korea as soon as possible. Though Moon will resist, we should insist on deploying nuclear-armed offensive missiles, under U.S. control, in South Korea as well.
When — not if — North Korea tries to disrupt the South Korea Olympic Games by missile launches or nuclear tests, we should test our anti-missile capabilities by shooting down their missiles. For a number of reasons, including the fact that our anti-missile systems could fail, we haven’t done so yet. If any missile is launched close to any U.S. ally or territory, we will have to take that risk.
Lastly — not in importance — we have to expose the cooperation between North Korea and Iran in developing nuclear weapons and missiles. As I’ve written before, it’s one of the least mentioned, and most important, threat multipliers we face.
Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is the stability of world order that Iran and North Korea — both revolutionary regimes whose ideologies compel them — are working tirelessly to destroy. Our national security depends on stopping them. Desperation diplomacy won’t.