Anyone who says talk is cheap hasn't tried getting President Trump to talk with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un. Not even the specter of a war that could kill millions of people on the Korean peninsula, Japan and now even the continental United States seems sufficient to push the two leaders into negotiations. Both sides insist on unacceptable preconditions before they will even consider holding formal talks to reach a peaceful settlement.
Successful negotiations might end Washington's economic sanctions and military preparations against North Korea, but Pyongyang demands that outcome before it even starts talks. Two weeks ago, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Han Tae Song, said, "As long as there is continuous hostile policy against my country by the U.S. and as long as there are continued war games at our doorstep, then there will not be negotiations."
On the other hand, the fact that South Korea sent seven warships in mid-November to join three U.S. aircraft carriers for war games off the coast of the Korean Peninsula almost seemed calculated to keep Pyongyang away from the bargaining table. U.S. and South Korean plans to start a massive five-day air force exercise on Dec. 4 will doubtless do the same. And the Trump administration's recent designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism only reinforced Pyongyang's suspicion that "the United States is not serious about negotiations," in the words of one former Korea expert at the State Department.
As for U.S. demands, Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently of North Korea, "So long as they stop testing, stop developing, they don't export their weapons, there would be opportunity for talks." In other words, if they capitulate first, we will be happy to negotiate the terms of their surrender. Needless to say, North Korea's latest test launch of its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile gave the middle finger to Mattis's demands.
Last year, the man who prides himself as the world's greatest deal maker raised hopes of peace by saying he would "absolutely" speak to Kim, even if there were only a "10 percent or a 20 percent chance that I can talk him out of those damn nukes." Trump told a campaign rally in Atlanta, "What the hell is wrong with speaking? . . . We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table."