WASHINGTON - While the Trump administration is exploring strategies to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, former U.S. officials who dealt with the communist state extensively offer mixed views on how to achieve that goal.
Earlier this week, Pyongyang launched four ballistic missiles in an apparent protest against U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, prompting Beijing to intervene. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed Wednesday to halt the military drills in exchange for North Korea freezing nuclear and missile programs, a proposition that has been rejected by the United States and South Korea.
Speaking to reporters after attending a U.N. Security Council meeting over the launches, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the regime must take “positive action” before it can be taken seriously. She made her remarks a week before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to make his first trip to Asia, where North Korea is likely to top his agenda.
Skepticism about North Korea’s intention
Although former U.S. nuclear envoys who participated in direct talks with the North appear to agree that dialogue with North Korea may not be possible in the near future, they differ on whether the U.S. should pursue negotiations as part of its long-term policy.
Christopher Hill, who served as the head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks, which stalled in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration, raised doubts about the regime’s willingness to discuss denuclearization.
“I’m very pessimistic about talks, but I think we should leave the door open to talks,” Hill said during an interview with VOA Wednesday.
“North Korea indicates no interest in doing away with its nuclear weapons. On the contrary, their interest is in enhancing their nuclear arsenals,” added the former envoy, now the dean of Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Hill stressed that any future talks with North Korea must be based on what the country has already agreed to, referring to a nuclear deal in 2005 in which Pyongyang promised to give up its nuclear weapons programs. The envoy called for U.S. efforts to strengthen relations with regional allies and engage China to try to narrow differences on the North.
James Kelly, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs who also led the U.S. negotiation team in the Bush administration, called on the Trump administration to put all options on the table, describing the current standoff with the North as “very dangerous.”
Kelly believes the Trump administration could consider talks as an option, but cautioned against direct engagement with the North, saying it could undermine the administration’s coordination with U.S. allies.
Critics argue pressure alone would not resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
Robert Gallucci, who was the top U.S. negotiator when the first North Korean nuclear crisis broke in the early 1990s, said the U.S. should seek an opportunity to engage North Korea without any precondition.
Talks without precondition
“I think the smart thing would be at some point to agree to have talks without preconditions, and then talk about what both sides want to discuss,” said Gallucci in an interview with VOA Thursday.
Sanctions would not change Pyongyang’s course on its nuclear weapons, Gallucci said.
“I am opposed to the idea that we imagine that sanctions are going to be so effective that they are going to stop the North Korean behavior that we don’t like, or maybe even they are going to be so effective, they will cause the regime to collapse,” he said.
Joseph DeTrani, who served as envoy for the nuclear talks from 2003 to 2005 during the Bush administration, told VOA the Trump administration should rein in the North’s provocative behavior, while seeking talks to try to slow the country’s nuclear development.
“I think it’s important for North Korea to understand that there are consequences when they violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and launch missiles as they recently did,” said the envoy, who currently is the president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School on National Security in Washington, DC.
DeTrani suggested the Trump administration should try “exploratory talks” with Pyongyang to test if the country has any intention of freezing its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for easing sanctions or a security guarantee.
Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported the Trump security team is considering military action against the North as part of a review of its policy toward Pyongyang. However, whether such a plan is viable remains unclear.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command in the Obama administration, told VOA this week the U.S. should not rule out any possibility, including the use of military force, in its dealing with North Korea.
Retired Adm. William Fallon, who also commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific in the Bush administration, however, showed skepticism about using force, telling VOA he “would not go down that road.”
The multilateral negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs started in 2003 and have been stalled since late 2008. Since then, the North has conducted four more nuclear tests. The first test was in October 2006.