WASHINGTON – A former U.S. envoy has urged the Washington to hold talks with Pyongyang without preconditions to break the impasse over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile threats.
“I am of the view that the two sides should agree to have ‘talks about talks’ without any preconditions,” Robert Gallucci, chief negotiator for the now-defunct 1994 nuclear freeze struck with North Korea, said in an interview.
Gallucci’s view is at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy of imposing “maximum pressure” on North Korea in concert with the international community to compel the hermit country halt its provocative acts and engage in credible talks for denuclearization.
Gallucci also questioned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s emphasis on pressuring North Korea, pointing out Abe’s insistence that now is not the time to talk to the country, given that it hasn’t changed its provocative behavior.
“I can’t believe refusing to talk with North Korea is in the best interests of Japan,” he said, referring to Abe’s resolve to address Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. “I think an effort at lowering tensions would be. That he does not see it that way, I regret.”
Gallucci disagreed with the view that North Korea will never give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying it would still be possible to rid the country of them if Pyongyang and Washington build mutual confidence through dialogue.
“I think a nuclear weapons-free (Korean) peninsula is possible if the North becomes convinced that their relationship with the United States has matured to the point that they are no longer concerned about the U.S. attempting regime change,” said Gallucci, who is chairing the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Touching on North Korea’s recent test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile that it claims can deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States, Gallucci said it will still take some time before Pyongyang gains that capability.
“Having done one missile like that does not mean they have a capability yet,” he said. “It takes a while to reach what we call ‘initial operating capability’ for a weapon system.”
Gallucci said it is also unknown whether the missile, which North Korea calls the Hwasong-15, carried a payload in the nose cone and whether it can shield and protect a nuclear warhead through re-entry in the atmosphere.
“I would say all that does not add up to any conclusion other than that capability is not so very far off for the North Koreans, if they continue to test,” he said. “So if the United States wished to persuade the North Koreans to suspend these tests, we ought to do it before they do any more tests.”
In a separate interview, Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, said he does not believe pressure and sanctions alone will achieve the Trump administration’s goal of denuclearizing North Korea.
Pollack described the relationship as a seemingly endless cycle of provocations and pressure.
“Both countries are stuck in this loop where we increasingly are looking for additional increments of punishment and pressure, and they’re looking for additional increments of pressure through a sense of danger,” he said.
As part of efforts to break the stalemate, Pollack suggested that the United States and North Korea consider a Chinese proposal for both sides to agree to a “freeze to freeze,” whereby Pyongyang would stop testing while Washington and Seoul would suspend joint military exercises.
“It’s worth considering because if the North Koreans can’t test missiles and they can’t test nuclear weapons, they cannot advance their program qualitatively beyond a certain point,” he said.
“There is a saying that one shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Pollack said. “Half a loaf is better than none.”