What might it take to create a breakthrough to resumption of US-North Korea talks? The experiences of prior diplomacy suggest an answer: a special emissary of the president to meet with Kim Jong-un. North Korean leaders not only want a reliable deterrent to what they fear is a potential US attack, or attempt at regime change. They also want respect, especially from the United States, which translates to recognition of the country’s status and the regime’s legitimacy —its “supreme dignity,” at one observer puts it.
Use of a special emissary—someone of recognized stature, with appropriate international credentials—would meet the North Koreans’ standard of dignity. The emissary has been successful in a number of dicey situations between North Korea and the United States. Jimmy Carter’s visit to Kim Il-sung in 1994 paved the way for the Agreed Framework, which pre-empted US preparations to attack a North Korean nuclear site. Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 produced an importantly symbolic joint statement of “no hostile intent” when the visit was reciprocated by a top North Korean party leader. Former New Mexico Governor and UN ambassador Bill Richardson’s mission in 2007 recovered the remains of US servicemen killed during the Korean War. Former President Bill Clinton’s visit in June 2009 resulted in the release of two American journalists after Kim Jong-il pardoned them.
Richardson, who has visited North Korea several times, has written that building trust through personal relationships is central to effective engagement and negotiations. The Trump administration should take note of that. Trading threats invites deeper trouble, and often leads to deployments of force that produce disastrous miscalculations. Is President Trump up to the task of learning from the past and trusting to diplomacy rather than gunboats? There is no weakness in engaging an enemy, and there is wisdom and maturity in trying creative diplomacy before firing shots.