DANIEL VAUGHAN: Be skeptical of North Korea’s sudden interest in talks

March 9, 2018

DANIEL VAUGHAN: Be skeptical of North Korea’s sudden interest in talks

North Korea is reportedly ready to talk with South Korea and the United States over the possibility of abandoning their nuclear program. And President Donald Trump has accepted an invitation to meet with Kim and South Korea.

To say this is historical would be underselling the word historic — we’re on the level of Nixon opening up China.

But even in this historic moment, we should remain skeptical of North Korea’s intentions. We know from prior encounters that they view these occasions as opportunities to shake money and concessions out of the United States.

And that’s why the policy of the United States for this new meeting should be to remain as wise as a serpent, but innocent as a dove.

North Korea relayed its new interest in talks to South Korea. According to the South Koreans, the chief item North Korea wants in return is security. USA Today reported:

North Korea said it is willing to talk to the United States about abandoning its nuclear weapons program if its security can be guaranteed, South Korea’s government said Tuesday.

The North said it would stop testing nuclear weapons and missiles for the duration of any “candid talks” it may hold with Washington.

In a speech at the White House, South Korea reiterated North Korea’s requests and also said President Trump accepted an invitation to meet with North Korea by May of this year. There are still many details that need to get worked out, and it’s not even sure if North Korea will show up. They’ve backed out of talks and meetings in the past.

So why now? The United States and South Korea have been available for good-faith talks regarding denuclearization for decades. And given North Korea’s bad faith in past negotiations and agreements, we should be skeptical of anything they declare.

What drove Kim and North Korea to suggest discussions?

To begin with, we know sanctions are working against the North Koreans. Most of the financial trading North Korea does is with the Chinese. The pressure the Trump administration placed on the Chinese has hammered the North Korean economy. China reported an 81 percent drop in imports from North Korea in January alone.

Tightening the screws on North Korea and nudging China to help out has also put new stress on the North Koreans. An investigation by The Wall Street Journal found that sanctions had put pressure on North Korea’s currency and food reserves. The government is facing a hard cash shortage, and the people are suffering food shortages.

The last time North Korea faced food shortage situations was in the 1990s, during a famine caused by the former Kim regime’s communist systems. Out of a total population of approximately 22 million, as many as 3.5 million people are estimated to have died from that famine.

But even though we can point to evidence of the sanctions working, we shouldn’t take that as guaranteed leverage against Kim in any talks. And we shouldn’t allow North Korea to use those talks as a means to loosen sanctions, and then walk back later promises.

So why now? The sanctions are one answer to that question. Another is that North Korea could use these talks as a way to drive a wedge through the U.S. and South Korean relationship.

The U.S. media plays a useful idiot role in this respect when they repeat whatever the North Koreans want them to say.

North Korea could also use the talks as a means of figuring out a way around any sanctions and getting aid sent to them. In 2000, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met face-to-face with North Korea for the Clinton administration.

But as Nicholas Eberstadt from Commentary magazine lists in comprehensive detail, North Korea never had any intention of denuclearizing:

North Korea got lucky with the alignment of governments in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. For a while, the leaders of this consortium of states were commonly willing to underwrite an exploratory policy of “sunshine” or “engagement” with the Dear Leader by offering him subventions and financial transfers.

To secure his June 2000 Pyongyang Summit with the Dear Leader, for example, South Korea’s then-president had hundreds of millions of dollars secretly wired to special North Korean accounts — thereby committing crimes under South Korean law (for which he later issued pardons).

Remember, in 2000, North Korea was just emerging from a civilization-altering famine, and instead of dropping its nuclear program, it manipulated the West into sending food and aid. Now it faces another food and economic crisis, and we’re back at the negotiating table again.

President Trump finds himself at the same crossroads Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama faced when dealing with North Korea.

What to do when they come to the table for talks?

We cannot make the same mistakes of those administrations by unintentionally letting North Korea off the hook, granting them food and aid, and allowing them to carry on as usual.

The Iran Deal already accomplished this feat for Iran. In fact, they were getting hammered by effective sanctions, and President Obama let them off the hook and got nothing in return on the denuclearization front. How we handle North Korea will also dictate what we do with Iran. Both countries work with each other and are watching how the U.S. treats specific issues.

We have to remain vigilant to the idea that North Korea has ulterior motives, is part of the axis of evil, and is trying to avoid denuclearization at all costs.

The president is right to keep the sanctions on North Korea. And he should also America’s guard up against a dishonest dictator.

Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.