Meeting the Supreme Leader: Is the U.S. about to give up its best bargaining chip?

North Korea has nothing to lose in face-to-face diplomatic talks. Can the same be said of the U.S.?

Ronan Farrow: War on Peace tells the stories of a number of the diplomats who have been deeply engaged in North Korea diplomacy over the last several administrations. And I think it’s ahistorical when you hear people say, “Those were all failures, we didn’t get anything done.”

Under the Clinton administration, we had a really substantive framework agreement with the North Koreans where they made a lot of commitments that would have been very important in the long-term to slowing their progress as a nuclear power, and the United States actually reneged on a lot of the commitments that we made on our end. We were in no small part responsible for the collapse of that deal.

Then subsequently during the George W. Bush administration, you had a situation where Bush, after the disasters of Iraq, set about doubling down on diplomacy and they lead six-party talks. A career diplomat named Chris Hill went over there and spent countless hours talking to all of the players, and they actually shut down some of the reactors for the first time in years. They were starting to give us some information about their nuclear development. In the end, they did cheat, it did fall through, and that wasn’t our fault, but we did make some inroads. Particularly in our conversation with China about North Korea, which is going to be a pivotal part of any solution going forward.

Now you see the Trump administration coming in with this kind of madcap approach: diplomacy by tweet, all of this saber rattling, and now potentially a meeting between leaders.

And the reality is, we don’t know how that’s going to pan out. Could it work? Sure. And I, and I think everyone else invested in this problem, sincerely hope that it does.

But what those experts whose stories are in War on Peace say, one after another, is we are flying blind now and we don’t have to be. You can have the same kind of saber-rattling and tough approach, you could have the same kind of leader-to-leader meeting and also insulate yourself against some of these pitfalls.

Make sure that we are not accidentally legitimizing the North Koreans as a nuclear power. Make sure that we are hip to the fact that they very often lie about the kinds of commitments they’re making now and have done so in the past. There is a real risk here that we get played.

Look, North Korea will continue to be perilous. It was perilous under the previous regime; it is perilous now. I think that the thaw in relations between the North and the South is one of the most positive developments to come along, and that’s due to a number of factors, not just what’s happening in the United States right now.

But ultimately, regardless of who is in the seat of power there, we are going to need a core of experts who are experienced in the ways in which these regimes, one after another, are difficult and lie to the rest of the world and pose a threat to that region.

And I have complete confidence in one thing, which is: whoever comes along next in terms of North Korean leadership, we’re going to need some people who are really well-versed in dealing with that region if we want to keep them contained.

I think that the fondest desire of this regime in North Korea is to gain international acceptance as a nuclear power, and it’s very unclear that a meeting of any kind is going to halt that. They have certainly lied about the willingness to halt that before.

The risk with this meeting is that we play into their hands and say, “Yeah, sure, we acknowledge you as an equal on the international stage,” and we give up some of our leverage in having them want that contact, want that leader-to-leader access, which could make the nitty-gritty work of actually implementing diplomacy and making sure that they are contained as a nuclear power that much more difficult.

Nobody hopes the eventual face-to-face meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un works out more than Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ronan Farrow. Farrow's new book War on Peace in part details the history of diplomatic efforts between past White House administrations and the North Korean regime, and how fragile and fraught with lies that relationship has been. Trump's "saber-rattling" style may be fresh enough to inspire change, but there is a very good chance the U.S. will get played by North Korea's hollow promises. "We are going to need a core of experts who are experienced in the ways in which these regimes, one after another, are difficult and lie to the rest of the world and pose a threat to that region," says Farrow. The potential meeting between Trump and Jong-un will also be the first time a sitting American president will meet face-to-face with a leader of the North Korean regime, and in doing so, the U.S. might give North Korea what it wants most: legitimization. "The risk with this meeting is that we play into their hands and say, "Yeah, sure, we acknowledge you as an equal on the international stage," and we give up some of our leverage in having them want that contact, want that leader-to-leader access, which could make the nitty-gritty work of actually implementing diplomacy and making sure that they are contained as a nuclear power that much more difficult," says Farrow. Ronan Farrow is the author of War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence

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