KYOTO – Diplomatic experts from Japan, the United States and South Korea are calling on U.S. President Donald Trump to seek ways to get Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table, possibly in the so-called six-party talks framework that includes the three nations plus North Korea, China and Russia.
North Korea is expected to top Trump’s agenda during a 12-day, five-nation trip that begins in Japan on Sunday.
During a symposium at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University on Monday, former and current diplomats who have dealt with North Korea offered advice to Trump, starting with what not to say.
“Don’t demonize North Korea. We can still have effective communication with them,” said Moon Chung-in, a special adviser on foreign affairs and national security to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “We also have to be more realistic. In my personal opinion, if you put denuclearization at the entrance of dialogue and negotiations with them, they’ll never come to the table. We might think about putting denuclearization at the exit.”
He added that a multilateral approach was preferable, citing a September 2005 joint agreement by all six nations.
In the joint declaration, the six parties reaffirmed that the goal of their talks was verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. Pyongyang agreed to commit to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. Washington, meanwhile, affirmed it had no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and no intention to attack or invade North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons.
Trump has criticized diplomatic efforts in the past two decades on North Korea, saying they haven’t resulted in Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
“We cannot recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state now,” Moon said. “If they have nukes, there will be a strong urge in South Korea and Japan to have nuclear weapons, and you have concerns about proliferation of weapons to third parties.”
Christopher Hill, the former assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs who served as the chief U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks between 2005 and 2008, also criticized Trump’s comments about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being a “little rocket man.”
The key is to understand North Korea’s intentions, he said.
“Today, we have a North Korea that wants to be able to use nukes as part of their effort to make the U.S. decide whether we want to defend South Korea and, in doing so, risk our own civilian population or somehow decouple ourselves from Northeast Asia,” Hill said. “That is not a basis for moving forward.”
However, he said the U.S. could do more, especially with China.
“We need to address Chinese concerns that, somehow, in the context of a demise of North Korea, the U.S. would try to take strategic advantage against China,” Hill said. “I think there’s a willingness in the Trump administration to do that.”
Hill, like Moon, cited the September 2005 agreement.
“It’s in our interest to make sure North Korea understands that our obligations as laid out in the September 2005 statement are still things we embrace, and that we also expect North Korea to embrace its obligations about denuclearization,” he said.
Japan’s former chief negotiator, Mitoji Yabunaka, expressed concern that there was a shortage of North Korea experts in the U.S. that had Trump’s ear.
“Perhaps two individuals have influence over Trump on North Korea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping,” Yabunaka said. “Xi because Trump admires strong leaders. Abe has been quite loyal to Trump and Trump trusts those who are loyal.”
“Now is the time for Abe to speak up and advise Trump about what North Korea is thinking, and what the best way is to bring them to the negotiating table,” said Yabunaka, who also served as vice foreign minister.
Given the situation, he said, it was time to call an emergency meeting of at least five of the original participants in the six-party talks.
“Japan should propose an emergency meeting of five parties where the ministers can say whatever they wish,” Yabunaka said. “The point is to consolidate the various positions and show the world it’s not business as usual here.”
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