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Sunday, February 26, 2017

The North Korean "Talks"

The New York Times is reporting today that the White House scuttled informal talks with North Korea that were about to happen in New York at the UN.  To be precise, that's the spin of the Times, although the facts reported by the Times are these:

1.  A group of former government officials who had negotiated with the NKs in the past set up a meeting with some high ranking NK officials.  That meeting was to take place at the UN.  The former officials included some who negotiated with the NKs during the Clinton years, some from the Bush administration and a few others.

2.  The State Department initially indicated to the group that visas for the North Korean officials would be issued.  That advice from State was received on Thursday.  By Friday, the decision had been countermanded and the group was told no visas would be issued.

3.  There is nothing to indicate who changed the initial decision.  The negotiating group believes that the reversal came from the White House.

That's it.  There's nothing else.  What amazes me is that someone at State originally approved the idea to give the NKs visas to attend such talks.

First let's start with what the NKs have just done.  North Korean agents used deadly nerve gas to murder the half brother of the North Korean dictator.  That attack took place in an airport in Malaysia.  It was a violation of Malaysian sovereignty, a use of outlawed chemical weapons, and a big finger in the eye of the so-called world community.  The North Koreans have also just fired new missiles towards Japan and are also working on and testing ICBMs capable of hitting the mainland USA.  This missile work violates a bunch of UN resolutions.

Second, let's look at these "informal" talks that were proposed.  Remember, under Bill Clinton, the USA negotiated a deal with the NKs that supposedly stopped them from building nuclear weapons.  It was a terrible deal that let the NKs continue their work on the nukes to completion.  Some of the people for the informal talks actually negotiated that deal.  Some of the people for the informal talks also negotiated with the NKs during the Bush years.  They too made some rather poor agreements that the NKs used to get benefits without ever meeting their obligations under those agreements.  Put that together, and this was to be an informal discussion between Americans who had totally failed in past negotiations with the NKs and the NKs themselves.  Why would we want to replicate such talks?

From the standpoint of the White House, preventing these talks was clearly the right thing to do.  Imagine if these poor negotiators came to some sort of a deal with the NKs and then it got announced to the public, maybe through a "leak" to the NY Times.  President Trump would be under great pressure to accept this peace deal whether or not he thought it in the best interests of the USA.  It's hard to reject a deal without looking like a warmonger, even if the deal is a bad one.  Trump campaigned against all those "stupid" deals made in the past by previous administrations.  Clearly, he would want to have people he chose do the negotiating, not retreads from the past who bring the baggage of not only past failures, but also of the attitudes that led to those failures.

This is not hard to see, so why did the State Department first say that the visas would be issued?  My best guess is that the initial statement was not made with the blessing of Rex Tillerson.  More likely, it was advice from some Obama holdover who is still operating on the old paradigm that any talks are better than no talks.  The reality, however, is that good talks are better than no talks, but America cannot operate anymore on the basis that an agreement is the goal no matter what it says.  That's the sort of thinking that gave us the failed Iranian nuclear deal.  It's the old Obama elevation of form over substance that the country rejected by electing Donald Trump.

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