Maybe Kerry’s mind is too open on North Korea

State Department Photo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on April 12, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • John Kerry has decided to boldly go where all men have gone before: back to the negotiating table with North Korea.

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  • Despite years of broken promises, the Obama administration has no new ideas for dealing with Kim Jong Un.

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  • All Pyongyang has to do is make the right noises for a while, and Washington will curl up into its claw.

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Secretary of State John Kerry has decided to boldly go where all men have gone before: back to the negotiating table with North Korea. Despite years of broken promises, bad-faith negotiations, cunning violations of both the spirit and letter of agreements, Kerry and the Obama administration have shown they have no new ideas for dealing with Kim Jong Un and his rogue regime. 

The diplomatists will always chastise those who question their time-honored dependency on face-to-face dialogue. They will retort: “What’s the alternative?” implying a false choice between meaningless talking and war. There is no gray in their world, only the white of negotiations and the black of non-engagement. Kerry gave a crystal-clear lesson in striped-pants thinking in his Tokyo press conference, telling reporters: 

I’m not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted because of a kind of predetermined stubbornness. . . . You have to keep your mind open.

An open mind is a wonderful thing to have. But privileging one’s open-mindedness over bitter experience is an exercise in wishful thinking. What Secretary Kerry thinks is predetermined stubbornness could just possibly be considered prudence by those who were not so enamored of the dialogue dependency trap. Maybe every new diplomat feels he has to make the effort, or even believes he’s got the magic key. One would hope the permanent bureaucracy would at least temper such enthusiasm. And Kerry at least made it clear that he wouldn’t jump back into talks without clear action on the part of Pyongyang to commit to denuclearization.

The problem is that North Korea has seen this movie before. They know that once the Americans whet their own appetite for negotiations, they’ll cave somehow in the belief that they can really get it solved this time. So all Pyongyang has to do is make the right noises, tone down the rhetoric and action for a while, and Washington will curl up into their claw as they have for the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, they will get better at aiming their missiles, and may even perfect putting a nuclear bomb on top of one, as recent intelligence indicates. The fact that they can’t do it all today ignores that they are moving steadily towards that capability. Add in that there is not the slightest chance of them voluntarily denuclearizing (or demissilizing), and any new talks will be the latest revival of the theater of the absurd that is “diplomacy” with North Korea. 

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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