For the last several months, the United States and North Korea have been stuck in a mutually reinforcing cycle of escalation. The possibility of the confrontation spiraling into a horrific, full-scale war — either by design or by accident — has become increasingly likely.
President Trump has portrayed North Korea as uninterested in finding a peaceful way out of this standoff. On Tuesday, during a visit to South Korea, the president took a different tone, declining to reaffirm his previous statements that negotiations are “a waste of time.”
The approach he showed in Korea was certainly better than his past bluster, but it still falls far short of what is needed.
Over the last year, the two of us have been part of informal discussions with North Korean officials also attended by former American government officials, retired military officers and experts. While determined to pursue a nuclear arsenal to defend their country, the North Koreans say they are also open to discussing how to avoid a disastrous confrontation.
Even before Mr. Trump took office, North Korean government representatives sent signals that they were open to dialogue. In a meeting in Geneva shortly after the American presidential election, they expressed a willingness to consider resuming contacts that had been cut off the previous summer.
The North Koreans also raised the possibility of discussions to determine the agenda for formal talks that could tackle American concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and North Korea’s concerns about “hostile American policy” — the term they frequently use to refer to what they perceive as the political, military and economic threats posed by the United States.
That message was reinforced during meetings in Pyongyang after Mr. Trump’s inauguration. North Korean officials acknowledged that the new administration offered the opportunity for a fresh start, and raised the idea of beginning talks without preconditions. In a session in Oslo a few months later, the North Koreans recognized the need to defuse tensions while reiterating their interest in an unconditional dialogue.
On the sidelines of that meeting, the State Department official in charge of dealing with North Korea, Ambassador Joseph Yun, quietly met with Choe Son-hui, the head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s North America bureau — the first encounter between a Trump administration official and a North Korean official.
Throughout the unofficial talks, the North Koreans explained that the accelerated pace of their missile and nuclear programs over the last year reflected their belief that such weapons were the only way to forestall efforts by the United States to overthrow the government of Kim Jong-un.
For the North Koreans, who point to the fates of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as cautionary tales, demonstrating that they can build a nuclear missile able to reach the continental United States is the highest priority. This was confirmed in Moscow a few weeks ago, when Ms. Choe said that North Korea would continue to develop these weapons until it reached a “balance of power” with the United States.
This dark cloud may have a silver lining.
In our talks, the North Koreans have maintained that they are not striving to be a nuclear state with a big arsenal, but rather to have enough weapons to defend themselves. Since early last summer, North Korean officials have publicly said that they have entered the last stage in the development of their nuclear force, implying that they have an endpoint in mind. A senior North Korean official privately told us: “If we feel we have enough, the primary emphasis will be on economic growth.”
This potential opening for dialogue needs to be explored. We believe the best way to proceed would be to first hold bilateral “talks about talks” without preconditions. The objective of these talks would be to clarify the policies of each country, discuss where there might be potential compromises and what each side considers nonnegotiable, and prepare the groundwork to move on to negotiations.
Ideally, this would be done through under-the-radar meetings by diplomats, similar to the initial contacts between American and Iranian officials that took months and eventually led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In the current atmosphere of crisis, we should accelerate this process by appointing a senior presidential envoy to work with the State Department and with top-ranking North Koreans.
A nuclear-free Korean Peninsula should remain the United States’ main priority. The Trump administration wants this to happen immediately, while some experts argue this objective should be dropped since it will be impossible to achieve.
We don’t agree with either position. The United States has to be realistic. Denuclearization cannot happen overnight. It must be framed as a long-term objective of any diplomacy, an approach the North Koreans have hinted they would accept.
In view of the mounting confrontation and the lack of mutual trust, the United States must pursue a step-by-step approach to reduce tensions and secure a path to formal negotiations.
An essential first step is an immediate moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing, which aggravate tensions. In exchange, the United States and South Korea could meet North Korean concerns by adjusting the scale of their joint military exercises or perhaps offer some relief from economic sanctions. Other steps — such as assurances by North Korea that it will not transfer nuclear, chemical or biological weapons technology overseas — could follow.
But none of this can be achieved without the right political atmosphere. The North Koreans are bewildered by the lack of coherence in American policy. President Trump’s threatening tweets and personal attacks on Kim Jong-un have only added to the risks of misinterpretation. Even his recent statements in Tokyo and Seoul, hinting at a willingness to talk, are at risk of being drowned out by his bluster, which reinforces the North Koreans’ mind-set that they made the right decision by choosing a nuclear path.
Mr. Trump could begin reducing tensions by stating clearly that diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang is his administration’s first choice and that the United States is ready to proceed down this road, working with its allies and partners. Such a statement offers the best way to sway the Chinese to better enforce sanctions against Pyongyang and would serve him well in his coming meeting with President Xi Jinping of China.
The United States should understand that growing talk of military options will only strengthen Pyongyang’s resolve, not undermine it. Given the danger of a nuclear war, that would be a serious mistake.
Suzanne DiMaggio, is a senior fellow at New America. Joel S. Wit is a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University and the founder of its North Korea website, 38North.