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Wright writes: "On Wednesday, I asked Michael Hayden, a former four-star general who has served as the director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, how the crisis could be defused."

President Trump. (photo: Getty)
President Trump. (photo: Getty)

The Way Out of Trump's Ad-Lib War With North Korea

By Robin Wright, The New Yorker

11 August 17


n October, 2000, during the final weeks of the Clinton Administration, I accompanied Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea. The trip was the first high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to Pyongyang since the Korean War ended, in 1953, and no other has taken place since. Albright’s goal was to broker a moratorium on North Korea’s missile program and to set up a summit between President Clinton and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, the father of the county’s current leader, Kim Jong-un. Albright carried a letter from Clinton outlining “the expectation of further developing relations.” Kim put on a flashy spectacle for her: a hundred thousand dancers, musicians, gymnasts, children, and soldiers performed at a ceremony in a Pyongyang stadium, complete with fireworks and a synchronized sequence in which tens of thousands of people flashed color-coded cards to depict Communist symbols and nationalist images—including a missile.

Albright and Kim held two days of intensive talks at a government guesthouse decorated with crystal chandeliers, lime-green carpet, pink and white orchids, and caged parakeets. Outside, the country was struggling to recover from a famine. The United Nations had recently estimated that two-thirds of the population had suffered chronic malnutrition. Albright visited a kindergarten where humanitarian aid, much of it from the United States, provided children’s meals. She presented Kim with a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan, his athlete hero. He wanted to dribble it, only to find that it was attached to a display box. The two leaders discussed movies and Kim said that he didn’t think he could watch “Titanic” a second time. He asked for Albright’s e-mail address.

“There is great distance between our two lands, but we are starting to discover, to our benefit, that there is no barrier to improving ties,” Albright said in a toast at a working dinner. She called for “new avenues of communication, commerce and contacts.”

The diplomacy collapsed over the next three years, for several reasons. As his Presidency was ending, Clinton had to choose between two last-ditch diplomatic initiatives—North Korea rapprochement or Palestinian-Israeli peace. Clinton opted to focus on the Middle East, in part because he thought that the Palestinian President, Yasir Arafat, was ready to make a final deal with Israel. In the end, Arafat wasn’t. Clinton left office without making progress on either front. During the Georg W. Bush Administration, North Korea was discovered to be secretly enriching uranium, which can fuel a nuclear weapon. The complicated Agreed Framework that Washington and Pyongyang signed in 1994 collapsed in 2003. Among other things, the agreement had curtailed the construction of North Korean reactors capable of producing plutonium. The United States, in turn, could not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the North.

This week, as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang flared, I spoke to Wendy Sherman, who was the State Department’s policy coördinator on North Korea under Clinton and was also on Albright’s trip. Later, under President Barack Obama, she was the State Department’s lead negotiator on the more successful Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. I asked her about whether diplomacy was still an option—given past U.S. experience—and whether Kim Jong-un, who has been in power since 2011, could ever be trusted.

“The North Koreans are not crazy in the sense that we use the word in the vernacular,” she told me. “They have a paradigm under which they operate. It’s regime survival. They believe if they don’t have nuclear weapons they won’t survive. They’ve seen leaders deposed or killed because they didn’t have a deterrent against the powerful United States.”

Diplomacy is still an option, she insisted. “Whether it can work now that they have nukes and are well on their way to a system to deliver them—it’s much, much, much, much harder,” she said. “But the Agreed Framework, as imperfect and ultimately doomed as it was, worked. For the eight years it was in place, North Korea did not get one ounce of plutonium. It did not get a nuclear weapon. And it did not get an intercontinental ballistic missile. So diplomacy is worth one more try. The consequences are so huge, and war is such a horrible option.”

Hyperbolic American rhetoric has escalated the tensions this week. President Trump’s ad-lib warning to North Korea—that it faced “fire and fury like the world has never seen”—was followed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former Marine general who is well aware of the complexities of military action against North Korea, staking out a tougher position than he has in the past. Pyongyang “should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” Mattis said in a statement on Wednesday. He noted that the United States was “making every effort” at a diplomatic resolution, but warned that North Korea “would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

North Korea countered by threatening to fire four ballistic missiles over Japan toward Guam, the small Pacific island where the United States has some seven thousand troops stationed on two military bases. Guam is about two thousand miles southeast of Pyongyang and almost four thousand miles from Hawaii. According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korea is considering a plan for “an enveloping fire” around Guam “to signal a crucial warning to the U.S.” Pyongyang also dismissed President Trump’s threat as a “load of nonsense.” “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason,” the head of North Korea’s strategic forces said in a statement. “Only absolute force can work on him.” On Thursday, Trump insisted that he would follow through on his new hardball approach. “It’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries,” Trump told reporters. “So if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.” Asked what was tougher than “fire and fury,” the President responded, “You’ll see.”

On Wednesday, I asked Michael Hayden, a former four-star general who has served as the director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, how the crisis could be defused. There is no military option short of a potentially costly and deadly war that would result in many thousands of military and civilian casualties, he said. Covert action might slow North Korea’s nuclear program, and thus relieve some of the tensions, but it couldn’t halt the country’s program. Trying to shoot down missiles in flight would be more palatable—except for the danger that it might fail. U.S. technology is not there yet. In Hayden’s view, diplomacy is still the best way out. “Yet any deal will have to, in one way or another, concede North Korea’s nuclear status,” he said. “No other deal is possible.”

James Winnefeld, a retired Navy admiral and a former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a more sanguine prognosis. “Grin and bear it,” he told me. “Let them stew in their own juices.” Negotiations are worth a try, but “we could end up negotiating with ourselves as they cross their arms and stick to their position. The North Koreans will never give up their program. This is an impoverished, authoritarian country, and this is their insurance policy. At same time, they will never use it. They know it will be the end. And they’re not suicidal.”

The United States, he said, can fortify its deterrent capabilities—for instance, by strengthening its missile defenses. It can exert greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime, or mobilize allies in joint actions. “But it’s a fool’s errand to expect China to solve this for us,” he noted. If North Korea shows signs of proliferating—that is, trying to export—its nuclear technology, the U.S. should be prepared to impose a blockade, complete with search and seizure of ships, to inspect everything that goes in or out of the country. “We Americans tend to want closure, an endgame,” Winnefeld said. “But it’s not going to happen with North Korea. So you should put yourself in the best possible position—and go on living.” your social media marketing partner


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+14 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2017-08-11 09:36
This is good and important to remember. Clinton did make a 180 degree revision in his policy toward N. Korea. He began his term as president by visiting the DMZ and wagging his bent finger and the North with a threat to end they existence as they knew it. But later on, as revelations about US nuclear bombs placed in S. Korea and in Japan became public and there was tremendous outrage in both S. Korea and Japan, Clinton changed.

N. Korea was building nuclear power plants and working on a nuclear bomb. The South was doing exactly the same. But the people of both sides demanded a nuclear bomb free Korea. Japan for that matter, as well.

Clinton's negotiations with N. Korea worked. and that is because he treated them as equal partners in a discussion. He acknowledged that N. Koreans had rights and priorities.

Clinton faced a very mobilized South Korea. There was the threat that the US might be kicked out of its occupation of the South, if it did not work with the North.

9-11 changed all of that. Bush refused to honor the deals Clinton made and declared N. Korea to be one of the Axis of Evil.

Obama and Trump have just followed Bush's lead. But things may be changing. The South Koreans and their new president are no accepting US war mongering.
-18 # Old School Conservative 2017-08-11 15:05
Clinton and Madeleine Not SO Bright were played by the North Koreans. Bush refused to honor the deal because they found out that North Korea never stopped working on the bomb. Now 16 years later, Obama and Kerry have been played by Iran in the same way. We will be dealing with a Nuclear Iran a few years.
+6 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2017-08-12 07:02
Old school -- I totally don't agree. North Koreans gave up an enormous amount to comply with the deal they made with Clinton. They did it in the hope that someday the US would take the next steps toward a full peace treaty.

In the 1990s N. Korea was desperate for electric power. So was the South. South Korea built 20 nuclear power plants -- all by US contractors. North Korea built 2 nuclear power plants.

North Korea shut down its nuclear power plants and converted to oil fired plants. The US agreed to sell oil to North Korea. This created terrible electric shortages in North Korea. But they accepted it because it was -- they thought -- the opening gesture toward normal relations with the US. North Korea got betrayed by the US.
+3 # crispy 2017-08-14 01:04
N Korea was promissed water nuclear reactors (can't produce Plutonium) but Europeans produced the money, and the US failed to do so. We betrayed N Korea meanwhile they pursued secretly their program...
+16 # lfeuille 2017-08-11 18:59
Clinton's negotiation worked before Iraq, Libya an Syria showed the North Koreans that the US can't be trusted to keep their end of the bargain. They know better now.

The solution is just to live with N. Korean nukes. They are not likely to use them unless the are attacked, or really believe they are about to be attacked. So just shut up and leave them alone. Of course, Trump is not capable of doing this.
+5 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2017-08-12 07:04
That's right. They all cite the agreements made by Qaddafi and Saddam to disarm. Then the US utterly destroyed these nations. The same thing would happen in North Korea. There can be no doubts about this.

The US would destroy North Korea, kill 10 million people and build US military bases all along the border with China. China has said it will not allow this to happen. It will be open war between the US and China, if the US tries it.
+11 # twocents 2017-08-11 09:42
HUH? You can't have peace in the mid-east and Korea at the same time? Walk and chew gum?
+6 # MidwestDick 2017-08-11 16:22
This is Bush we're talking about. He can't even chew gum.
+1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2017-08-13 09:47
Mid -- good point. But he had Dick Cheney right behind him and god only knows what Chaney could chew.
+16 # VoxFox 2017-08-11 10:42
The US should renounce its active Imperialism that it has inflicted on the world for 100+ years, since its war with Spain in 1898.
The US Sanctions against Japan in the 1930s triggered their attack on Pearl Harbour - the danger of unexpected consequences should never be under-estimated.
Nuclear War is the End of Humanity.

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