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Could talks prevent war with North Korea? In US, little appetite to find out

Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

PANMUNJOM, Korea -- At one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, several blue and gray buildings sit within the oddly named Panmunjom Peace Village, watched over by twitchy guards from North Korea and South Korea.

It is here in the Demilitarized Zone that initial talks could start -- and possibly lead to broader negotiations -- that might defuse a growing military confrontation between the United States and North Korea. Assuming such talks ever occur.

For months, a large segment of Korea experts have urged the Trump administration to open a dialogue with Kim Jong Un on ending or at least freezing the North's nuclear weapons programs. But those experts are rarely heard in Washington, either in congressional hearings or amid consultations within the White House.

"They don't want to hear it," said Andrei Lankov, a Korea specialist based in Seoul and an advocate for negotiations. "It is against the zeitgeist -- the spirit of the times."

For many in Washington, any talk of negotiating with Kim is repulsive, a nonstarter. That opposition has intensified following North Korea's recent missile threats and a leaked U.S. intelligence report that Pyongyang has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead.

Critics say negotiations would create the appearance of submitting to nuclear blackmail and would enhance the stature of Kim, one of the world's most brutal dictators. They also say Kim can't be trusted to carry out commitments in any deals, given North Korea's record of reneging.

 

Lankov agrees these are legitimate concerns. But along with several other Korea specialists based in the United States and South Korea, he sees negotiations as the only realistic option left in dealing with North Korea. "Unfortunately this option is now getting worse," said Lankov, citing the recent war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean officials. "But all the others are very bad."

Lankov, who was born in the Soviet Union, is one of the world's few Korea specialists to have lived in North Korea, having attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University in 1985. For the past three decades, he's been a leading researcher and critic of the Kim family regime. But starting roughly eight years ago, he warned that the United States might have to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

A U.S. military strike against North Korea's weapons facilities won't work, he argues, and could prompt Pyongyang to bombard Seoul and its 10 million people with rounds of artillery and chemical weapons. A U.S strike would likely fail to destroy some of Kim's hidden missiles and warheads, and could "provoke the second Korean war that no one wants," Lankov said.

Another option would be to squeeze Pyongyang financially by imposing sanctions on China, North Korea's main trading partner, and by seeking to end Chinese exports of oil to the country. Lankov argues that Beijing would never tolerate such a squeeze because it could lead to economic and political meltdown in North Korea.

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