Meeting the 'designated engager for North Korea'

I had the opportunity not long ago to meet with and question the U.S. diplomat who, according to his own account, is “the designated engager for North Korea.”

“My job is to talk to North Koreans to see what they want, where they want to go,” Joseph Yun, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, told a group of opinion writers when we met with him at the State Department on Oct. 11.

The American Society of News Editors arranged the meeting, part of a day-long event during which several top diplomats spokes with us.

A couple of years ago Yun was tapped by the Obama administration to undertake this most difficult of diplomatic challenges.

“My last assignment was as ambassador to Malaysia,” he said, wistfully. “It was a nice life. Live next to golf course. Very nice.”

The effort to engage North Korea under President Obama went nowhere.

“They were quite adamant they would not talk to anyone in the Obama administration,” Yun said. “They believed the Obama administration was interested in regime change.”

There have been some talks initiated by Secretary Rex Tillerson, even as President Trump dismisses them as useless and ratchets up the rhetoric against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, labeling him “Rocket Man.” It’s a reference to North Korea’s frequent missile testing and its rapidly expanding nuclear program.

Yun suggested there is some strategy to this good cop, bad cop approach.

“I am a diplomat, I work in the State Department, and have always said that we should pursue pressure as well as a diplomatic path. And that is not an easy mixture … to pressure someone and coax them into a dialogue,” he said. “We have to put all options on the table and that would include military options.”

North Korea is feeling the pressure of tough global sanctions, including limits on its coal exports, oil imports and the blocking of income from expatriates. But getting China, by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner, to turn up the pressure is the key to forcing serious negotiations by the rogue nation, Yun added.

That’s no surprise. What was interesting was Yun’s take that it might be the prospect of South Korea and Japan developing nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal that finally persuades China to toughen sanctions.

“This is what China fears,” he said. “A nuclear northeast Asia.”

Yun said North Korea has no interest in multilateral talks.

“The North Koreans have made it clear to me … that they want to talk to the U.S.,” he said. “They see this as a problem between North Korea and the United States.”

Yun said the U.S. goal remains a nuclear weapons-free North Korea. I no longer see that as a realistic objective. Kim has made the calculation that the best protection against anyone messing with his dictatorial nation is nuclear weapons. Even now, military strategists say Kim has enough firepower to cause millions of deaths in response to any U.S. attempt to stop his nuclear program by way of a military attack.

What might be possible is to get North Korea to cap its arsenal and limit the reach of its missiles. The U.S. won’t know if that’s possible unless it tests the potential in talks.

“I would like to think there is path out there that can … build some kind of relationship and trust,” between the two countries, Yun said.

Asked about the potential that the standoff will instead end in a terrible war, Yun took a pass.

“My main job is diplomacy,” he said. “It’s not to pull triggers.”

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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