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How Diplomatic Engagement With North Korea Could Proceed


I'm Robert Siegel in Washington, where this afternoon, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States is considering more sanctions after North Korea's latest intercontinental missile launch. Yesterday, Tillerson said in a statement that diplomatic options remain viable and open for now. And our next two guests say it's time to pursue those diplomatic options.

Joel Wit of Johns Hopkins University and Suzanne DiMaggio with the think tank New America have both taken part in informal discussions with North Korean officials. DiMaggio says there's no question that diplomacy remains viable.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: Not only is it still possible, but it's really the only way forward at this point. I think with this latest test, the North Koreans have shown once again that they are determined in an unflinching way to reach the capacity of having a nuclear-tipped ICBM that can hit any city in the U.S. And as we witnessed, they are well on their way to achieving that.

SIEGEL: Joel Wit, despite that, do you think that it's possible to actually arrive at some diplomatic resolution?

JOEL WIT: I do think it's possible. The North Koreans have been talking about a diplomatic solution ever since the Trump administration took office. But unfortunately, we really haven't explored it seriously with them.

And so after the recent test, of course, people think the chances are much less. But in fact, in a government statement issued after the test, the North Koreans said that, essentially, they had completed their ICBM program. And to my mind, that means they are still open for business.

SIEGEL: And when you say that they have talked about a diplomatic solution, have they talked about it in these informal talks that you've both been a part of? And what have you heard that might conflict with the impression we have of North Korea's leader, say, Suzanne DiMaggio?

DIMAGGIO: Yes. In discussions I had with North Korean officials right after the Trump administration came into office, they made it quite clear that they were open to considering official talks without preconditions. I think that was a missed opportunity by the administration early on. Keep in mind that was before the heated rhetoric began, before the rocket man insults, which has really soured the atmosphere now.

But even still, I think with this test, it shows - and more importantly, with this announcement - that they have completed their nuclear force. It likely indicates that they're getting ready to perhaps move to negotiations to try to extract both political security as well as economic concessions.

SIEGEL: I want you both to elaborate on that a bit. You're saying, in what sounds like a triumphal statement - that we have achieved the ICBM that we've been trying to develop - you're hearing a potential invitation to diplomacy. Why shouldn't we equally, Joel Wit, hear them saying, well, so there, you know, we don't care about what you want?

WIT: Well, I think they're saying both. I mean, you've got to remember the North Koreans like playing tough guy. And so on the one hand, they're saying, so there. But on the other hand, if you understand their policies, one of the justifications they make for building a nuclear force is so they can protect themselves - provide a shield so they can modernize their economy.

And so what you can deduce from this is that now that they've built a sufficient shield and they may be interested in further modernization of their economy, they may be open for business.

SIEGEL: Well, one problem in talking about North Korean motives is that the country's so opaque. We don't have a lot of insight into decision-making in Pyongyang.

And I wonder - if the response to this most recent test is more economic sanctions, do you think that the North Korean leadership - would it alter its thinking about missiles and warheads and what it'll test and what it won't test based on economic pressure?

WIT: On the one hand, yes, we should be putting pressure on them. On the other hand, if you understand the North Korean mentality, we put more sanctions on them, that's going to mean more tests.

SIEGEL: You're saying we should expect more defiance...

WIT: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...After more sanctions are applied?

WIT: Exactly. And it goes to the point I made earlier that they like to think that they're the tough guy on the block. And so they're not going to give in to pressure. And if there is pressure, they're going to react. And the reaction is going to be more tests.

SIEGEL: The two of you have been involved in this track two initiative - this informal initiative of talks with North Koreans. And you're not talking about the prospect of attacking North Korea and a strike to demolish its missile or weapons program.

Do you regard that as, both of you - starting with you, Suzanne DiMaggio - as completely unthinkable? Or when the president meets with defense officials and says Secretary Mattis is on the case, do you think the U.S. is working out its military options right now?

DIMAGGIO: Oh, there's no question that a range of military options have been worked out and are being actively considered. But the fact remains that even a pre-emptive strike is not a viable option because we can expect the North Koreans to retaliate in a massive way. It's too great a risk at this stage, especially when the robust diplomacy hasn't even been attempted.

SIEGEL: Do you agree with that, Joel Wit?

WIT: Oh, absolutely. Look, at the end of the day, we may face a choice between a military option or having to back down and accept the North Koreans as a nuclear weapon state and deal with them through deterrence and other measures.

But before we get there, we have to explore the only viable alternative left to us, and that's diplomacy. And we really haven't done that. And, you know, the consequences of military action are horrendous, so it's incumbent on all of us, and particularly our government, to look at the diplomatic track in a serious way.

SIEGEL: Why do you think the U.S. government has not looked at it in a more serious way?

WIT: Well, you know, I've been doing this for a long time. It's been 25 years since I've been dealing with the North Koreans. And we make the same mistakes over and over again. We think that if we put pressure on these guys, they're somehow going to fold or come back to the table and do what we want them to do. And that's not how it works.

We've made the same mistake again. The Trump administration has led with pressure, with more sanctions, with the threat of military action. And the North Koreans have just continued to move forward with developing their programs.

SIEGEL: Joel Wit of Johns Hopkins University and Suzanne DiMaggio of New America, thanks to both of you.

DIMAGGIO: Thank you.

WIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.