Talking to North Korea May Be Obama's Best Option

By acting now, the President can avoid cleaning up a more intractable mess later.

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President Barack Obama speaks at the Organizing for Action dinner in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013.
President Obama's proposed budget would reportedly cap returns on high-end retirement accounts.

Once again, North Korea's brinksmanship has the world's attention – the U.S. is scrambling to deescalate the situation, and everyone from Dennis Rodman to Rev. Franklin Graham is weighing in. Kim's actions are nothing new, and the situation is as complex now as it was after North Korea sank the Cheonan and bombed Yeonpyeongdo Island in 2010.

What is different is the dynamic, and this new dynamic requires the Obama Administration to think outside the box and change its Korea strategy.

The current strategy oversimplifies North Korea's pattern of behavior. It paints Kim Jung Un as an irrational, suicidal president flouting the norms of a civilized global system, and frames the policy conversation around security. This in turn limits the diplomatic options available to the international community to help cool the situation. The administration's strategy is helping propagate an endless tit-for-tat game of aggression, forgiveness, and cooperation.

Kim Jung Un is behaving rationally. His actions have the direct benefit of keeping his isolated country in the international spotlight, giving him influence over the young presidency of Park Guen-hye, and getting the Obama Administration's full attention.

But there's no guarantee that Kim's latest maneuvers will produce the same result. He's voided the 1953 armistice, blocked South Korean workers from entering a jointly run industrial facility, and conducted another nuclear test. This time around, there is a greater risk, to borrow the words of General James Thurman, commander of U.S. troop stationed in South Korea, of a "miscalculation. An impulsive decision that causes a kinetic provocation."

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

The administration must break this cycle. Consider a policy option that it's been reluctant to embrace – direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Not in the form of the naive and vacuous suggestions of Rodman and Graham – an impromptu phone call or an informal Obama vs. Kim hoops game in Rungnado May Day Stadium – but as a sophisticated process of rapprochement that would produce substantive negotiations between the State Department and the Kim regime.

Much work would need to be done to pursue this course, putting in place controls that keep North Korea from cheating, winning political support in Washington and abroad, and influencing U.S. public opinion, but it would be a bold move that would strengthen the U.S.'s balancing power role in East Asia. None of this is happening today because the administration is trying to ride shotgun with China, a country that has questionable influence over Pyongyang and goals contrary to U.S. interests. Direct diplomacy would firmly put the U.S. in the driver's seat.

However, such a course would require a type of leadership from Obama that may force him outside his risk-averse comfort zone. Republican criticism of such a move and the possibility of a public opinion backlash would be strong forces compelling the president to maintain the status quo, but these should not be a deterrent.

It's only a matter of time before Pyongyang's threats spark an out-of-control chain reaction that destabilizes the region. Not to mention, once North Korea becomes a launch-capable nuclear power, that situation becomes a far more challenging foreign policy problem. By acting now, the  president can avoid the struggle of cleaning up a much more intractable mess later.

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