Former negotiator with North Korea believes denuclearization can happen through step-by-step approach, advocates deepening dialogue

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during the U.S.-DPRK summit on June 12, 2018. Image: Yonhap News Agency

The Yonsei University Institute for North Korea Studies hosted a special lecture entitled “Why Donald Trump is Right About North Korea,” at the Kim Dae Jung Library on Friday, October 12. During the talk, Joel Wit, a former US State Department official and operator of the prominent North Korea-focused website, was quick to voice his disapproval of the American president.

“He brings nothing to the table besides a desire for a deal,” said the Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.

According to Wit, it is President Trump’s complete lack of knowledge of foreign affairs that allowed diplomacy with North Korea in 2018 to burst through the bureaucratic red tape that prevented engagement during previous US administrations.

From 1995-2001, Wit served as Coordinator for Implementation of the Agreed Framework, the first nuclear deal between Washington and Pyongyang. He condemns the US media’s framing of current diplomacy with North Korea.

“There are myths about North Korea,” he said. These include popular misconceptions of what Pyongyang will and will not accept when it comes to denuclearization. Part of this comes from what he says is a lack of experts in upper levels of the American foreign policy apparatus who have real experience dealing with the North Koreans.

Although there are capable people in the diplomatic and intelligence communities in Washington, reports cannot replace experience gained from direct interactions with the North Koreans, he emphasized.

The current political stagnation surrounding diplomacy with North Korea in Washington comes from two sources: the complications of negotiating with North Korea, which involves decades of historic animosity and a plethora of issues (besides denuclearization), and the slow evolution of geopolitics in Northeast Asia. Dealing with change is not taken well in Washington, claims Wit.

Addressing the way forward, he noted that the United States cannot pursue diplomacy alone. China and Russia, key players in the region and two countries that share historic relations with North Korea, must be included if the United States wants to succeed in negotiations with Pyongyang.

As for what he thinks is the biggest danger to current progress? “Trump going off the rails.”

In order to address this and maintain steady dialogue, he outlined four suggestions: establish stronger guardrails in the American government to counter Trump’s predilection for irrational behavior; combine practical measures with increasing transparency, such as seeking a nuclear inventory in tranches, rather than demanding it all at once, and addressing the North Korean ICBM program; establishing liaison offices between the US and North Korea to streamline communication; and to ensure the next summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump has more substance than the Singapore summit.

The next summit is scheduled for some time after the United States midterm elections in November.

The midterm elections may potentially be an important factor. If the Democrats gain a majority in Congress, it could prove disruptive to President Trump’s agenda, including talks with North Korea. In order to build political continuity, Wit believes it is crucial to build bipartisan support for diplomatic issues.  

When asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of US negotiations with North Korea, he replied that he doesn’t like to label himself one or the other. “I guess that makes me a realist,” he concluded.

*Nate Kerkhoff is a Master’s candidate at Yonsei Graduate School for International Studies and Young Scholar at the Pacific Forum