Diplomacy in Korea: Trump’s greatest burden, and opportunity

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I return to the issue of Korea for two reasons.

First, in my column last week I erred by pandering to passion at the expense of substance.

Second, several readers raised a fair point: If I’m going to criticize, I should offer alternatives. I strive to do that (within my editor’s stingy budget for column space).

To begin, let’s dispel one misperception. I am not entirely opposed to war.

I fought for our country once and would do so again — if the war is just, and is the only option.

But, the costs warrant reiteration. The Korean War claimed 33,000 Americans, 2.7 million Koreans and 800,000 Chinese. A renewed war would likely be at least as deadly, including the cost in American lives. And that’s without nukes.

Do we need to be prepared for that fight? Yes. And we are and have been for six decades. I don’t favor appeasement or shying away from a fight. But, if we’re going to accept burying that many people, let’s make sure it’s the last option.

Our ability to win that war lies in the strength of our military, which doesn’t require blustery saber rattling. But, in the words of Sun Tzu, it is best to win without fighting.

Winning that fight without fighting requires diplomacy, which has been woefully inept.

That deficiency didn’t start with Trump. Since 1953, presidents of both parties have kept North Korea isolated and starving in hopes of denying them nukes. That policy has failed.

North Korea long ago concluded we’d only take them seriously if they had nukes.

Now, they do. They are a starving, desperate nation that has been isolated for so long they believe war is inevitable — and we’re mirroring their mentality.

When it became evident during the Clinton administration that North Korea would achieve nuclear capability we needed to start real engagement. We didn’t.

When North Korea achieved nuclear capability during the Bush administration, we should have abandoned our previous policy, which was entirely based on preventing something that already had happened.

Instead, we doubled down, and continued to wish we could put the genie back in the bottle.

Wishful thinking continued under Obama, as we repackaged our old policy into “denuclearization,” and blindly pushed for a world as we wished it to be, instead of negotiating in reality.

Now, Trump has inherited that legacy. That is perhaps his greatest burden, and his greatest opportunity.

Unfortunately, we still have not pivoted from our old policy. We still make our forlorn wish that North Korea had never achieved nuclear weapons the stumbling block to negotiations in a world in which that has become the reality.

North Korea has repeatedly signaled, through Russia and China, its desire for real, meaningful talks with the United States.

We have squandered those opportunities, and to this day refuse direct talks unless they come with the precondition of rolling back history — of recreating the North Korea of 2005, that was still starving and isolated, without nukes.

But, there have been sparks of hope. The president’s decision to postpone joint military maneuvers with South Korea has defused the situation somewhat, and given room for face-to-face talks between North and South Korean delegations.

And, to his credit, the president voiced support for the talks, and since has fallen mostly silent on the topic. That may be the best course in the short term: to support engagement between the two Koreas, then shut up and get out of the way.

In the long term, however, the president is going to have to take our country in a direction no other president has: either into war with a nuclear North Korea, at the expense of millions of lives; or into meaningful diplomacy based in reality, with the understanding that a more prosperous and engaged North Korea will be a more stable North Korea.

The former course must never be embraced until the latter has proven impossible. We’re not there yet, because we haven’t yet begun to try.

Regardless of which course we take, this issue likely will define Trump’s place in history.

If he’s able to embrace real statecraft, avoid war while securing our interests and stabilize the Korean Peninsula: Now, that’s an outcome that would deserve to be called great.

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