Should the U.S. negotiate with North Korea?
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Should the U.S. negotiate with North Korea?

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is rejecting nuclear talks with North Korea, saying diplomacy has "failed" and all options are "on the table." Tillerson's statements have some people worried the White House is blindly going down a path that will lead to war with North Korea. Some analysts say it's too early to worry—Tillerson's statements could be standard posturing to deter North Korean escalation. What do you think?

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North Korea is not as crazy as people make them out to be. Yes, they're ruled by a megalomaniac dictator who enforces a cult of personality on his people, but for the most part, North Korea acts as rationally as an isolated military dictatorship can. Yes, they have nukes and they threaten to launch it at just about everyone. But a look at North Korean history shows most of their actions are rational and are calculated to deter the U.S. and South Korea. 

North Korea knows it doesn't have any friends. Instead of reaching out, it wants to make itself too dangerous to invade.

Its belligerence, they conclude, appears calculated to maintain a weak, isolated government that would otherwise succumb to the forces of history. Its provocations introduce tremendous danger, but stave off what Pyongyang sees as the even greater threats of invasion or collapse.

Analysts believe the North Korean nuclear arsenal is for self-defense. The North Korean government wants to prevent an American invasion. Their bet is if they have first-strike capability against American bases in Japan and South Korea while being able to threaten the American mainland, North Korean forces can prevent or stave-off a full scale invasion of North Korea and preserve the regime. 

North Korea’s nuclear program, some analysts believe, is designed to halt an American invasion by first striking nearby United States military bases and South Korean ports, then by threatening a missile launch against the American mainland. While North Korea does not yet have this ability, analysts believe it will within the next decade.

In this light, diplomacy makes sense. There's essentially no limit to what North Korea can withstand. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost all outside assistance, and instead of reforming and opening to the international community, it bore the deaths of nearly 10 percent of its population. This is not a nation you can bend to your will. Trump and Tillerson are better off engaging in talks to get North Korea to pause their nuclear program—otherwise they might have to face the very real threat of nuclear war. 

Tillerson's statements reflect the dire nature of the situation. Both Obama and Bush era policies toward North Korea did not work—North Korea has nukes and no one was able to stop them from developing those capabilities. Time and again, the regime has shown it is willing to violate agreements. 

“I see very little prospect of a collapse,” he said. “For eight years in the Obama administration and eight years in the Bush administration, they were expecting that to happen. As a consequence, their policies were not very effective. I would think that the United States and other countries as well should stop expecting a collapse in North Korea.”

To be fair, Tillerson's statements about keeping all options on the table are not too far from what other administrations said. In 2014, President Obama told U.S. forces in South Korea "we don’t use our military might to impose these things on others, but we will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life." The current situation is not working and if it progresses, it will threaten the United States. Tillerson is pushing for a harder line because nothing else has worked so far. 

“Conditions must change before there’s any scope for talks to resume, whether they be five-party or six-party,” Tillerson said. The six-party talks were a multilateral effort toward denuclearization involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas. The group met without North Korea on occasion.
Bombing North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites runs the risk of escalating into a second (possibly nuclear) Korean war with over a million casualties. North Korea’s nuclear facilities are “hot,” and bombing them could have untold consequences in terms of radioactivity. Alternatively, acquiescing to a breakout means this failed state could — incredibly — become a major nuclear power with a global reach. “So that just leaves negotiating,” says Litwak.
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