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Yes, President Trump, talking IS the answer!

It’s fair to say that no-one who understands the basics of international relations believes that President Donald Trump also understands how they work. His latest statement – sorry, Tweet – that ‘talking is not the answer’ regarding tensions with North Korea is a glaring case in point.

Trump’s threats and ‘show of force’ over North Korea’s missile testing, now with B2B Stealth bomber flights over the Korean Peninsula, only puts the world back in the position it was a few weeks ago, prior to what appeared to be a winding back of belligerent rhetoric.

North Korea’s recent missile launch over Japan was a not unexpected response to US, South Korea and allies war games which, though annual, were intended as a ‘show of strength’. The war games don’t, and can’t, replicate what war on the Korean Peninsula would look like, given that South Korea’s capital, Seoul, would come under heavy artillery bombardment and there’s a high likelihood that nuclear weapons would be quickly employed on both sides.

Apart from having been contradicted by U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who, when asked if the US was out of diplomatic options, simply said ‘No’, President Trump’s view that ‘talking is not the answer’ implies that anything short of a back-down by North Korea will be answered by ‘kinetic’ responses.

Yet short of total victory – in North Korea’s case and possibly that of South Korea read: ‘total annihilation’ – wars are always ended by some form of negotiated settlement. That means that, at some point, talking must be the answer.

It is unlikely that President Trump has the personal capacity, or now the space to move without looking very foolish, to start addressing the drivers for North Korea’s escalation of its nuclear and missile programs. But that is what is required.

North Korea has heavily invested the leadership of Kim Jong-un and his key generals in the country’s nuclear and missile programs. Expecting they will be abandoned is tantamount to suggesting that Kim and his generals abandon their totalitarian grip on North Korea’s long suffering population. That is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

It seems hard to imagine now, but a decade ago North Korea actually agreed to abandon its nuclear development program, started for domestic energy purposes. This agreement came out of six-party talks with South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China, in which North Korea agreed in principle to abandon nuclear development in exchange for nuclear fuel, other aid concessions and moving towards the normalization of relations with the US and Japan.

However, the North Korean launch of a missile in 2009, which it claimed was to put a satellite into space, led to condemnation by then President Barack Obama and the UN Security Council, and an increase in trade sanctions. North Korea responded by pulling out of the talks and, within days, had tested a nuclear device. The situation has deteriorated since.

The ascension of Kim Jong-un to the presidency of North Korea, following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, was marked by an unusual level of insecurity. Kim purged more than 200 protoges of his father’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who had assumed the position of regent immediately following Kim Il-jong’s death, and North Korea’s second most powerful man, Jang Song-thaek. Last February Kim Jong-un had his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, murdered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, removing potential rivals for leadership.

In this, Kim appears to have been either acting closely with or under the ‘guidance’ of a group of hard-line generals. This group of generals is now heavily invested in furthering the nuclear and missile programs, which is represented as a key means of legitimizing their totalitarian rule to the North Korean people.

Coming from such a build-up of mutual mistrust and belligerence, the question now is how to re-start the six-party talks, or something like them, In this, China is central, as the only country that the North Korean leadership even vaguely listens to. This is not about getting China to threaten North Korea or impose more sanctions, but to actually start talking about a constructive way out of the current impasse.

It’s a very long way from where the situation is now to where some form of positive dialogue could start to take place. But it is increasingly critical that process be at least started. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

So, despite President Trump’s Tweet that ‘talking is not the answer’, talking is indeed the answer. Indeed, it is the only answer.

The US needs to talk with China about engaging in some quiet diplomacy with North Korea, in effect promising it to make it worth it while to regime leaders to slowly move towards talks aimed at support and, ultimately, normalization.

The Korean War began in 1950 and, despite an armistice in 1953, has never formally ended. Perhaps it’s now time to work towards that as a final goal.