Talking to North Korea is a Good Idea, but…

Talking to adversaries is a good idea. Of course, it matters how it is done.

Some readers have accused me (and my co-bloggers) for never saying anything nice about the Trump administration.  So, here goes a positive comment:  I agree that we should talk to the North Koreans.  I think that, in general, talking to adversaries is a good and necessary thing to do.  This is an area in which Republicans in particular (I am thinking especially of the 2012 presidential campaign) have gotten too didactic in saying that we should only talk to North Korea or Iran if we get concessions first–which is a self-defeating position (see Doug Mataconis’ 2012 post, The GOP’s Ridiculous Appeasement Argument, if you need a refresher).

So, as a general principle, I agree that the US should talk to North Korea.

BUT, if we are going to engage in talks we need to go the proper groundwork.  Talks of consequence take time and effort.  And, moreover, meetings between heads of state require a ton of advance work.  Despite simplistic view of these things, leaders don’t sit down and hash these things out over a multi-day summit.  It just doesn’t work that way. Usually the heads of state meet only after substantive lower-level talks have led to actual agreements which the heads of state can then endorse in public.

And, really, Trump agreeing to direct talks with Kim without the actual work just gives Kim exactly what he wants:  increased stature with his domestic audience (the main audience to which he plays).  What it doesn’t do is provide any substantive changes to the politics of the Korean peninsula.

Update:  I see that James Joyner already has a lengthier take on this from Friday: Trump Accepts Kim’s Offer to Meet.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Donald Trump, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Kit says:

    Do we have any evidence that Kim is driven to raise his standing amongst his domestic audience? I rather doubt that the average North Korean is in any position to judge what is going on independently of the state’s propaganda machine.

    I find it more likely that Kim finally feels able to negotiate from a position of strength. Having secured his regime’s survival, perhaps his next step is to start cracking open the door to the outside world.




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  2. Gustopher says:

    We worry about Trump legitimizing Kim, and providing a propaganda boost to the North Koreans internally, but the reality is that the North Korean government controls their media so tightly that if we don’t give Kim something for the internal broadcasts, they will just make something up. The net difference is effectively nil.

    The “legitimizing” complaint doesn’t really hold water, unless you want to talk about Kim legitimizing Trump…

    The argument that there should be lower level talks is more realistic. But, after decades of trying to isolate the North Koreans, a big, bold symbolic meeting might be needed to motivate those lower level talks. Call it institutional momentum or deep state or whatever.

    It’s not like Trump’s meetings with other world leaders accomplish anything — these are really just big, grand gestures. How often does he meet with Putin at this conference or that? This seems harmless.

    (Unless North Korean gymnasts swoop in and poison Trump with a never agent, which is entirely possible, I suppose.)




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  3. Gustopher says:

    Help! I’m in a moderation queue!

    And my email had a typo so I don’t get my wallaby avatar!




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  4. Gustopher says:

    I have to retype my email all the time on them new OTB. On an iPad too, so typos happen. Sad.




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  5. @Kit: Any authoritarian needs to maintain a certain level of support within the domestic population. This is especially true in regime in which a) the population suffers deprivation and has to be convinced of the value of the leader, and b) wherein political assassinations are a viable vehicle for power. So, yes, it is not at all problematic to suggest that Kim is concerned about a domestic audience. A huge amount of what he does is for domestic consumption.

    Really: who else do you think it is for? Despite all the posturing he isn’t going to attack the South–that would be regime suicide.




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  6. @Gustopher:

    We worry about Trump legitimizing Kim, and providing a propaganda boost to the North Koreans internally, but the reality is that the North Korean government controls their media so tightly that if we don’t give Kim something for the internal broadcasts, they will just make something up. The net difference is effectively nil.

    Pictures of Trump shaking hands with Kim would be a huge internal PR coup.




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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: A brief moment, not a huge thing. This is an government that tells people that Kim Il Sung (that was Kim I, right? I get my Kims mixed up) parted the river between China and North Korea back in Korean War, to let the Chinese through.

    Kim I also allegedly fed the army with three balls of rice, but they might have stopped mentioning that during the recent famine.

    Compared to stuff like that, what’s a photo of Trump shaking hands with Kim Jung Un? If anything it means last week’s demonization of Trump as one of the lizard people (or whatever crazy stuff they say now) is now called into question.




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  8. teve tory says:

    A brief moment, not a huge thing. This is an government that tells people that Kim Il Sung (that was Kim I, right? I get my Kims mixed up) parted the river between China and North Korea back in Korean War, to let the Chinese through.

    Kim I also allegedly fed the army with three balls of rice, but they might have stopped mentioning that during the recent famine.

    I suppose every culture is essentially stuck rewriting the same basic myths. Throw in a Virgin Birth and I’ve got Mythology Bingo!




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  9. MBunge says:

    So…we should talk to North Korea but not unless it’s approved and organized by the very people who have spent the last 60+ years insisting we NOT talk to North Korea? Trump is right but what still really matters are all the people who were wrong?

    Mike




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  10. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think that talking with the North Koreans is that good an idea. We’ve been talking with them off and on for the last 30 years. It didn’t accomplish anything with the present Kim’s grandfather or father, is it likely to be more effective with him?

    I recognize that jaw-jaw is better than war-war but my concern is that the talks represent another escalation. “We’ve tried everything” could become a war banner.

    The one thing we haven’t tried, at least not for long enough, is strategic patience and I think that’s what’s called for here.




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  11. @MBunge:

    but not unless it’s approved and organized by the very people who have spent the last 60+ years insisting we NOT talk to North Korea?

    You do realize we have talked to the North Koreans before, yes?

    Trump is right to talk, but wrong to agree to head-of-state level talks right out of the gate.




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  12. @Dave Schuler:

    The one thing we haven’t tried, at least not for long enough, is strategic patience and I think that’s what’s called for here.

    Quite frankly, that has undergirded our entire approach to NK since the shooting part of the war ended.

    To be clear: I am not optimistic that talks will lead to some miraculous outcome, just that I don’t have a problem with resuming talks.

    More specifically: I prefer a foreign policy stance that allow for talking to adversaries rather than one that simply eschews them.




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  13. Kathy says:

    Talk is cheap, right? it may also be largely useless. One thin we can learn from Cuba, is that sanctions (embargo) and shunning don’t work. It was appropriate to place an embargo and to try to isolate Cuba when it was potentially a strategic threat, or a base for such a threat. But no longer.

    Likewise with North Korea, with the complication that it is, and always will be, more a threat to South Korea than to America.

    What I would suggest is two-way engagement. In particular to allow ordinary North Koreans, as well as officials, to visit the US, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, so they can see what other countries are like, and what other people think of their country.

    It will take time, maybe even decades, but ti should prompt some kind of positive change.




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  14. Kit says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Do you really think that the average North Korean can distinguish between what transpires in actual negotiations and what the Dear Leader said happened? I doubt it. I’ve heard that the population has suffered dreadfully, and the health of defectors has recently been in the news. I never had the impression that the regime was tottering. After all these years, the Kim family seems to have the country tightly in its control. So the idea of foreign political stunts being generated for domestic consumption leaves me unconvinced. No, I get the impression that North Korea is constantly in a tight position and carefully weighs its actions as they will be judged by the South, by America, and by China. This may will be only for show, but the audience is likely elsewhere.




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  15. @Kit: The simple answer is yes: I think that there are important internal audiences for these actions.




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  16. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: We’ve talked to North Korea on and off for decades, but the talks have always been predicated on them never getting a seat at the grown-ups table.

    For my entire life we have had a policy of isolating the North Koreans and hoping for regime change. We’ve set preconditions that would have meant giving up their best chance at becoming another Iraq or Lybia. And, we do military exercises on their back door that are a dress rehearsal to an invasion.

    Yes, the North Korean people would be better off as South Koreans. Yes, dictatorships can be brutal. But we can’t save the entire world, and war and famine are more brutal. And we are currently on a path to war and more famine.

    For all his many flaws, Trump comes into this without that baggage. There is some risk he will give the North Koreans California.

    I would rather have someone like Obama doing this, but Obama would have been undercut by the Republicans in Congress (see the Iran Nuclear deal). So,Trump.

    We can afford to give up more than the North Koreans can. Trump folds like a cheap suit and declares everything he does to be a victory. This might work.




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  17. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: @Kit:
    It ain’t about some North Korean eating grass out in the far countryside, it’s about the North Koreans in Pyongyang, and particularly his generals and relatives. He’s bet a lot on nukes. Now we’ve given him the biggest diplomatic victory since the armistice. His bet has paid off. That’s currency that works anywhere. And if it eases sanctions so that the goodies flow? That definitely pacifies some potential opposition.

    Also, don’t underestimate the little things: I’m sure Kim has visions of having tea with the Queen in Buckingham Palace. He’d be the first North Korean leader since the war to be treated as a peer when he shows up at Davos to give a TED talk on juche-onomics.




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  18. @michael reynolds:

    , it’s about the North Koreans in Pyongyang, and particularly his generals and relatives.

    Yup.




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  19. Ben Wolf says:

    And, really, Trump agreeing to direct talks with Kim without the actual work just gives Kim exactly what he wants: increased stature with his domestic audience. . .

    That’s not an argument against Trump meeting the man. You’re saying you just don’t like it.




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  20. @Ben Wolf: It was not intended as an argument. It was an observation.




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  21. @Ben Wolf: @Steven L. Taylor: I explained my basic position in the preceding two paragraphs of the post.




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  22. Ratufa says:

    Trump’s visit is a victory for Kim straight out of a North Korean propaganda film:

    https://www.history.com/news/presidential-visits-north-korea-propaganda-trump

    That link provides some very interesting context for the visit.

    My worry is that Trump’s expectations are so far way from what Kim is willing to agree to that his reaction will lead to something unfortunate. On the other hand, Trump may just declare the meeting a success to salvage his ego, and move on.




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  23. JohnMcC says:

    I am going out on a limb and betting that this summit will never be held. At least, as presently envisioned with Pres Trump and Mr Kim arriving in separate motorcades in some grand neutral place and setting straight the world’s problems.

    I bet the NKoreans are looking for some opportunity to throw the anchor overboard. Apparently they’ve made this request of every administration for decades. I bet that’s what they expected this time, too.




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  24. Terrye Cravens says:

    I would not be against talks with NK, if Trump were not the one doing the talking. He is a loon. And to be honest, the Trump minions are already saying there will be preconditions before they meet and it might not be in May and oh yes, Kim must agree to get rid of his nukes. I have never heard Kim say he was even thinking about doing anything of the kind.

    I agree with John McC…it won’t happen. Probably.




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  25. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: You didn’t explain anything. You literally wrote that things just aren’t done in such a way, which is a pretty good example of groupthink. You implied it would be bad that Kim might somehow gain prestige, without any argument as to why that would be bad.




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  26. Kit says:

    @michael reynolds:
    North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons for over fifty years, and I rather doubt that the goal was to someday receive a pat on the back from the elites back home. No, a dream spanning three generations is quickly becoming a reality, and the current Kim must be eager to get to work. As you basically said, multiple things are going on here at once. My point is that a concern over domestic reaction is unlikely to be the prime motive at the moment.




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  27. grumpy realist says:

    @MBunge: Trump gave away the farm with his original suggestion, resulting in now the WH desperately back-tracking and making all sorts of “pre-conditions.” Oh, Trump didn’t REALLY mean it when he said……

    The more Trump makes statements that have to be backtracked on, the less people are going to treat any of his statements with any respect or even attention. Which is not good.

    He’s a loudmouth rapidly running down the meter, and the US is occupied with the chaos he has engendered within government. Which countries like Russia and China are rapidly taking advantage of.




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  28. @Ben Wolf:

    You didn’t explain anything. You literally wrote that things just aren’t done in such a way, which is a pretty good example of groupthink. You implied it would be bad that Kim might somehow gain prestige, without any argument as to why that would be bad.

    You are being unnecessarily argumentative–and I am not sure to what end. Indeed, your focus on prestige implies that you did not even pay attention to my response above, because the paragraphs to which I referred said nothing about the prestige issue.




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  29. matt bernius says:

    I continue to have a hard time understanding why anyone is hopeful for negotiations carried out in this way. First, does anyone have any concrete example of Trump successfully negotiating any actual compromise since taking office? Especially one that has to do with a key talking point of his?

    Next, anyone who thinks Kim will be willing to denuclearize is lying to themselves. If for no other reason than Kim and his advisors will realize that short of a treaty (which isn’t going to happen), there is no guarantee that Trump or a later president won’t reverse course. Nukes are an existential issue for NK and they have been for generations.

    (Seriously, can anyone argue successfully for why Kim would be interested in denuclearizing)?

    And there’s also the fact that we know that the North Koreans didn’t act in good faith during the agreement negotiated under Clinton.

    The only way that an agreement would work is if Trump is willing to allow NK to maintain Nukes. And that, last I checked, is still counter the to pre-requisites for talks that Trump’s own administration has stipulated.

    This is “green lantern” diplomacy taken to an embarrassing extreme.




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