1. Background
  2. Nuclear Weapons

North Korea: Diplomatic Openings and Giving Credit to Donald Trump

By Jim Cason, April 24, 2018

At a time when South Korean President Moon Jae-in has carved out new openings for diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, President Trump deserves credit for taking a risk for peace by agreeing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Now, Congress needs to get off the sidelines and engage.

Diplomacy still carries huge risks, as many people have acknowledged. Any breakthroughs at the U.S.-North Korea summit will still require years of prolonged diplomatic follow-up with all manner of accompanying ups and downs. Neither history nor the president’s Twitter temperament inspires deep confidence that the United States and North Korea will stay the course for the months and years of diplomacy that must follow the summit. President Trump has already boasted that he is ready to walk away. The summit could fail to produce any concrete results. Both the U.S. and North Korea could yet turn toward a devastating war that has also been avoided for decades.

Yet, as a Quaker organization, we are pleased that President Trump is taking risks for peace. While we question CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s past attacks on the diplomacy to address Iran’s nuclear program and his past remarks and associations concerning Muslims, we are also heartened by his support of engagement with North Koreans now.

Congress Needs to Act Too

Avoiding war doesn’t just happen. It takes work. Congress and the American people can and must play a role in supporting political risk-taking for peace. They can and must insist on sustained robust diplomacy that lasts even after the first disappointment or the first slight. They can and must speak out against the loose talk about war.

Congress needs to get off the sidelines and engage instead of scrambling for cheap political points against the president for talking to North Korea.

For our nation’s ally South Korea, war is not an abstraction, nor is it the answer. Casual talk about war in this country ignores and insults the tens if not hundreds of thousands in that country who would likely die if war returns to the peninsula. Casual talk of war silently wishes away the very real potential that war would spark a disastrous global conflict between the U.S. and China. And that’s not just my assessment, that echoes warning given by Henry Kissinger in congressional testimony earlier this year.

Members of Congress from both political parties should be praising this diplomatic opening. Congress must be setting realistic expectations for a summit that by itself will not resolve and unwind the distrust and dilemmas that have been decades in the making. Congress must understand that the summit is just the beginning of a search for diplomatic solutions. Finally, Congress needs to reassert its co-equal constitutional role over a decision as momentous and far-reaching as choosing war against North Korea.

Members of Congress from both parties also need to acknowledge that talking is not surrender— and that any diplomacy to secure U.S. interests and avoid war inevitably involves talking with adversaries. Any future diplomatic agreement to dial back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and ultimately satisfy long-standing U.S. nonproliferation policy goals will have to be accompanied by confidence-building gestures and concrete policy shifts from the United States. Some of that is already going on – from the scaled-back U.S.-South Korean military exercises to the gesture of talks in the first place. But more will need to happen in order to build the space for peace.

Are there threats and dangers in this process? Absolutely. The United States might think it has gotten more from a deal than North Korea has in reality given. North Korea could again pursue nuclear hedges that Washington simply cannot accept. China, Japan, or even Russia could decide that the path to peace is too dangerous or undercuts their short-term interests.

But with the stakes this high, we believe Congress should accept and applaud the Trump administration’s diplomatic initiative and then work to make sure it has the support and oversight to succeed.

Jim Cason

  • Associate Executive Secretary for Strategic Advocacy

Jim Cason is responsible for directing the full range of FCNL’s strategic advocacy work. In this capacity, he works with program staff to develop long term change strategies that accomplish our particular legislative goals.