Interview: North Korea Has a Chance to 'Turn The Page,' Seek Peaceful Relations

A North Korea expert and former US negotiator says Kim Jong Un should forgo weapons tests and return to talks.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is shown in a file photo.

With U.S.-DPRK relations reaching an all-time low, some North Korea experts cautiously hope that both countries can explore a chance for re-engagement.  A key test will be whether North Korea can halt its nuclear or ballistic missile tests in the initial days of the Trump presidency.  Recently there have been press reports that North Korea may test its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the first few weeks of the new administration in order to draw Washington’s  attention.

Changsop Pyon of Radio Free Asia (RFA)’s Korean Service recently asked Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former 6-Party Talks Special Envoy, about the prospects for improved relations between the two countries, along with the possible hurdles.  Currently President of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, Amb. DeTrani served as Senior Advisor to the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center and the Intelligence Community Mission Manager for North Korea.  Amb. DeTrani also served as the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO).

RFA: The new administration led by President Donald Trump began on Jan. 20.  Wouldn't this be a good opportunity for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to engage with the Trump administration?  As you know, North Korea missed chances of improving ties with the U.S. by conducting nuclear and missile tests during the Obama administration.

A: This is a very good question. Yes, it’s an opportunity for the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea], and it’s an opportunity for Kim Jong Un to show to the new Trump administration that North Korea is determined to find a peaceful path to improving relations, certainly with the United States but also with the Republic of Korea, because ultimately we’re talking about a reunified Korea. So, I think this is an opportunity for Kim Jong Un to say, “Let’s turn the page, and let’s move away from the elements of hostility to finding a peaceful path to addressing these issues.”

RFA: Shouldn't Kim Jong Un refrain from making any military provocations like nuclear or ballistic missile tests to show his sincerity to the new U.S. administration?

A: Absolutely!  I would highly recommend no missile launch, no nuclear test, no provocations toward the U.S. and its allies at this very important juncture with the new Trump administration coming into office.

RFA: Kim Jong Un said in his New Year speech that North Korea was in the final stages of ICBM launch preparation, suggesting a possible clash with the Trump administration from the start.  Do you think Kim made those remarks to send some sort of message to President Trump?

A:  Well, I don’t know whether he made those comments in his New Year address to get a message to President Trump.  North Korea has been working on its ICBM KN-08 for a number of years.  My view is that he wanted to make it clear possibly to the new U.S. administration, but indeed to his own people and the region that includes China, that he’s determined to launch an ICBM.  He has not deviated from his original intention.

RFA: Though it’s too early to say at this point, can you predict how the new Trump administration will deal with North Korea?

A: My sense is they will look at all the options available. Obviously, negotiations. Can we come back to negotiations?  Is there a possibility of revisiting the Sept. 2005 Joint Statement that spoke to denuclearization in return for security reassurances and other deliverables?  So, my sense and also my recommendation would be to determine if negotiations are possible, so that we can come back to the table and we can move toward a whole lot of things such as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and move toward a peaceful resolution.  And if peaceful negotiations are not possible, obviously other options have to be considered very, very carefully.

RFA: Do you think the Trump administration should rule out any military option, as this might lead to a possible military clash on the Korean peninsula?

A: Well, listen, my sense would be that initially we’re talking about reconstituting with some sort of dialogue--maybe initially bilateral dialogue, trilateral [dialogue], and eventually, hopefully, reconstituting with a 6-Party Talk process and so forth.  If none of that is possible, or if peaceful resolution is not possible, all options have to be on the table. I don’t believe you have to rule out anything.  You have to look at all options available.

RFA: Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho said, “it is not a matter of the quality or quantity of incentives to have Kim Jong Un give up the nuclear program.  As long as Kim Jong Un rules, North Korea will never give up the nuclear weapons. ” If this is true, what do you think is the best way for the U.S . and its allies to achieve the denuclearization goal on the Korean peninsula?

A: I think the best option is to look at all the possibilities of reconstituting with some form of dialogue with the DPRK.  Obviously Thae Yong Ho has a unique insight, but I’m not sure he can speak for Kim Jong Un.  Regardless of what he said, obviously what he said is very knowledgeable. I think the responsibility for all the countries is to determine if a peaceful resolution can be obtained. That should be the first goal.

RFA: You attended a Track 2  meeting in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia last September, where former U.S. government officials and North Korean officials gathered.  But no specific details came out of that  meeting.  What is your sense of North Korea’s position on denuclearization?  Are they still serious about it, or do they insist on arms control talks instead?

A:  That’s a very good question.  In my mind, North Korea wants to be accepted and recognized as a nuclear weapons state, but that’s not where we’re going.  And I think the DPRK understands that.  So, it’s not a question of arms control negotiations, it’s a question of coming back to the issue of comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization in exchange for security assurances and other deliverables. The sense I had at the meeting was that the DPRK had a lot of issues they were concerned about.  They were concerned about their security, sanctions, regime change, and so forth.  Obviously we’re all concerned about their nuclear and missile programs, the threats to the region and beyond the region.  So, all those issues were put on the table.  I think what we came away with was, “Let’s explore the dialogue. Let’s see if there is a way of both sides building confidence, so that we can move forward and look at initially halting the escalation of tension, and that would be the DPRK halting their nuclear and missile tests.”

RFA: Some North Korea experts argue that for a breakthrough in North Korea’s nuclear talks, the U.S. and its allies should take some sort of interim steps such as first freezing North Korea’s nuclear development rather than pursuing denuclearization from the start.  What is your take?

A: If we can get the DPRK to halt their nuclear weapons program and missile launches, and certainly production of fissile material, that would be very positive confidence-building steps. And if we can get North Korea to do that, we have to respond and give them something in kind.  If we want them to build confidence with us, we have to build confidence with them.  So, what do we do in return?  If North Korea halts all those things, they will demand certain things, such as talking about a peace treaty, the intensity of sanctions, joint military exercises and the number of such exercises, etc.  There could be a number of things they would put on the table.  I agree that their halt at this moment would be an important first step as we progress.  The Leap Day Agreement in 2012 was exactly like that.  We had an agreement that North Korea would halt all the nuclear and missile programs in return for a significant amount of food and development aid. That didn’t materialize, but hopefully this could be revisited.

RFA: If you were President Trump’s national security advisor, how would you advise him about North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues?

A: My advice would be this: “We need to be as creative and diligent as possible in determining if we can come back to negotiations, bilateral and ultimately multilateral negotiations, and maybe we could even reconstitute the 6-Party Talk process.  We have to work hard to use all means to peacefully resolve all these issues.  And if that’s not possible, obviously we have to look at all options, especially when North Koreans are talking about an ICBM, putting nuclear weapons on a missile delivery system that can become a nuclear threat to the U.S.  Then, obviously, all available options have to be looked at.  But at this point we are not there.”  Again I would advise President Trump that we have to work hard at finding a way to negotiate at this critical juncture to get North Korea to halt what they have been doing and give them something in return, and then move on to a path toward peaceful resolution.