Whenever North Korea heads to the negotiating table one remembers the traditional description of a second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience. We’ve been here before. Or, more accurately, the two Koreas have. Many times. Still, that’s not a criticism. As Winston Churchill famously said, “to jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war.”
Diplomatic dialogue requires two parties. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) always prefers a monologue. Kim Jong-un is most concerned about preserving his rule through what has evolved into a family dynasty. In any talks, humanitarian concerns will never be more than a gloss for the DPRK. The objective is never going to be far from extortion.
So what does each side want? Pyongyang almost certainly hopes to persuade Seoul to restart economic aid and investment suspended in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship and the bombardment of a South Korean island.
For its part, Seoul must decide what it most desires out of Pyongyang. One goal should be continuing dialogue, even if the results are largely inconsequential and the process frustrating. A more substantive objective for South Korea should be to lessen the North’s conventional threat. North Korea’s military is unsophisticated, but its advanced positioning puts Seoul at risk.
The United States should offer its full endorsement for the talks and indicate its readiness to step both forward diplomatically and back militarily if the two Koreas strike a deal.
All of this goes well beyond the working-level discussions planned for [Thanksgiving Day]. But if successful such an effort would be something for which all of us could give thanks.
[Excerpts from Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow at Cato Institute]