The ambassador chiefly responsible for negotiating the last nuclear arms deal with North Korea is encouraging Donald Trump to try his hand at another round of talks.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Robert Gallucci argued that the much-maligned 1994 deal actually was a success, putting North Korea’s plutonium production on pause for eight years. Now, with tensions ratcheting up to unseen heights with Pyongyang, Trump, he said, he’s worried that the benefits of such an approach have been underappreciated.
“It is plausible that negotiations are the best way to get through this so that nobody dies and that North Korean capabilities to threaten our neighbors and us is constrained and rolled back,” Gallucci said. “That is still possible. But it will not be done quickly and it will take some commitment to the effort. That’s the big point.”
Within diplomatic circles, Gallucci is widely regarded as one of, if not the, foremost experts on North Korean affairs. He had served in various top ranking foreign posts including top positions at the United Nations, prior to being tapped by Bill Clinton to negotiate with Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, after the country announced in 1994 that it was withdrawing from international nuclear agreements. The “Agreed Framework” reached by Gallucci is frequently portrayed as a failure since Pyongyang eventually reneged on its pledge to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program. But within non-proliferation circles, the argument holds that a pause in North Korea’s nuclear pursuits—even for eight years—was a success compared to the alternative of no pause at all.
Gallucci offered a sober assessment of the current standoff with North Korea—a standoff prompted by news that Pyongyang had miniaturized a nuclear warhead and by president Trump’s warning that “fire and fury” would result from further provocations.
North Koreans, Gallucci stressed, see the United States “as twelve feet tall,” meaning both that they’re driven by a belief that they must to protect their national interests and that they understand the costs of pushing the envelope too far. For that reason, he feared Trump overreacting in a particularly tense moment more so than Kim Jong Un.
There were only two ways for Trump to ensure North Korea didn’t developing the capability of striking the United States with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, Gallucci said. Either “we hurry up and get into a negotiation in which the development of that capability is frozen if not rolled back, or we strike.”
“So if you ask what I’m worried about, that’s what I’m worried about,” Gallucci added. “Am I worried that the North will miscalculate too? Yes. But I find the likelihood that the North is going to do something that they perceive as likely to cause an American strike as small.”
The prescription Gallucci offered for resolving the current situation was a combination of containment and deterrence, including military exercises, working closely with regional allies, additional sanctions, and cyber campaigns. “And then every once in awhile you run at them for negotiations, saying ‘we’re prepared to back off all this if you will seriously talk with us about changing relations,’” he explained.
It’s an approach that’s been tried before, with limited success. Gallucci, more than most, is aware of the upside and limitations. And it appears that the rest of administration’s cabinet is heading in that direction. The Associated Press reported that diplomatic channels with North Koreans were open, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis spoke optimistically about “diplomatic traction.”
Diplomatic progress could come crashing down, of course. And, Gallucci’s fear is that Trump’s continued bellicosity—including his Friday morning insistence than the U.S. was “locked and loaded” and his Friday afternoon declaration that Kim Jong Un would “truly regret” uttering one more threat—heightens that possibility.
“I was stunned and appalled to have a president talk that way,” said Gallucci. “There’s a part of all—many Americans, I can’t say all Americans—that wants to see a little push back here on the North Koreans. But on the subject of nuclear weapons and almost being frivolous about megadeaths about tens of thousands of people dying instantaneously, his job is make sure that doesn’t happen. Not only to us but to other human beings. At least, I like to think that’s part of his job.”
With reporting by Emma Kerr