Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made news on NPR this morning when he lined out the Trump Administration's posture towards negotiations with North Korea. The Secretary said time is up on trying to convince the North Koreans to behave, given their advanced weapon capabilities. He's looking instead to hit the real pressure points that will convince Pyongyang that only one option exists: no nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.
This stance is problematic for many reasons, according to one former administration official who has been in on failed negotiations with North Korea for the last 30 years. Dr. Gary Samore has served in many official capacities focused on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, the latest serving as President Obama’s White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction. In a recent address with the world affairs forum WorldBoston, Samore said the U.S. has never “cracked the nut” that would lead to peace with North Korea.
"We've tried just about everything ... international sanctions, military threats and intimidation, we've tried sabotage and covert operations," he said. "We've had three nuclear deals with the North Koreans under Clinton, Bush and Obama. The North Koreans violated all of those agreements. We tried providing them with economic benefits like light-water reactors and heavy fuel oil, rice, and even baby crackers and formula. None of it has worked."
North Koreans are currently capable of delivering up to a dozen nuclear weapons with short and intermediate-range missiles, according to Samore, threatening the region as far as Japan. But its goal seems to be a direct hit on the U.S. with a long-range missile — a development underway in North Korea, but as of yet, still untested.
The point of negotiation most likely to fail, according to Samore, will be the very goal set by Tillerson and Trump to remove North Korea’s nuclear capability altogether. Samore explained that not only are the North Koreans impervious to decades of sanctions and geographically placed in a way that makes it difficult to take military action, but there is a dynastic belief that the country's neighbors are hostile and the only hope for survival is with nuclear weapons.
"The North Koreans see themselves as surrounded by powerful enemies; first of all, the United States, but in addition to that China, Japan, and South Korea," Samore said. "They believe having nuclear weapons is necessary to fend off those enemies ... There's nothing we can do to reassure or appease North Korea. There aren't any pledges we can make or benefits we can offer them that would convince them that they don't need to have their own capacity to defend themselves. That conviction has been bred into three generations of the Kim dynasty."
Yet Rex Tillerson sounds firm on the agenda for a denuclearized North Korea.
"It is our goal. It is our only goal," he told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. Watch below to see how Samore thinks that might play out: