Dialogue remains only viable option
US President Donald Trump is still unconvinced that diplomacy is the way to deal with the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. But sanctions have their limits and reigniting conflict will only result in dire consequences
Dialogue between North Korea and the US is the only sensible way to deal with the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Yet after months of discussion, US President Donald Trump is still not convinced. His response to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to broker talks was met with the off-handed social media message that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate” with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un. So incoherent a strategy is achieving only confusion.
The US was behind toughened economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile tests. China, being the North’s closest ally, is under constant American pressure to lessen its trade and business links. Trump has also resorted to poking fun at Kim, who he refers to in Twitter messages as “rocket man”, and has raised the possibility of military action. But the president and his officials are not necessarily talking with the same voice, with Defence Secretary James Mattis, in testimony to the US Senate armed services committee last week, backing Tillerson’s approach of diplomacy. A personal rift between Trump and Tillerson does not help.
North Korea was among the issues discussed by Tillerson during meetings in Beijing with President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi. The talks were preparation for Trump’s visit next month. China’s position is clear; there are limits to how far it is prepared to go with sanctions for fear of causing a collapse of Kim’s regime and military action is not an option. Diplomacy has repeatedly been put forward as the best way forward.
Tillerson has explained the US approach as being a combination of sanctions and diplomatic pressure to force nuclear disarmament. But comments from Trump and other officials about military options and threatening and disparaging remarks aimed at Kim only undermine his efforts. Trump’s tweets that talking is not the answer harden the North’s push for a nuclear deterrent. Kim is also surely mindful of the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed by rebel fighters after being forced from power following a militant uprising and air strikes by the US and its allies, despite a deal to give up his nuclear programme in return for economic integration with the West.
Kim has not indicated whether he is willing to talk to the US, but Pyongyang has long sought a peace treaty with Washington to end the Korean war. Reigniting such a conflict would have dire consequences for Koreans and Chinese; it is simply not an option. Sanctions have their limits, making dialogue the only viable goal for Trump.