Guest Columnist

Diplomacy can avert a Korean war

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea on October 7, 2018. (Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuters)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea on October 7, 2018. (Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuters)

Days ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he’s heading back to North Korea for another round of nuclear talks.

The process of diplomacy may be tedious to some; there is often little glory in diplomatic procedure, repeated meetings, and long timelines with incremental gains.

As a veteran, however, I remain thankful for the career experts within our diplomatic corps and their tireless dedication to achieving better outcomes through long-running dialogue. Diplomacy — especially diplomacy with an adversary as erratic and difficult as Kim Jong Un — may take time. But it is absolutely preferable to a war on the Korean Peninsula.

Such a conflict would be catastrophic in economic terms alone. A new nonpartisan report out this week from the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates the downwind effects of a war with North Korea would trash the U.S. economy, sending growth levels plummeting to one percent — around where we were back at the onset of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The automotive and agricultural sectors would be hit particularly hard; our state is the fourth-largest exporter of food products to the Korean market, and when demand plummets, it’s likely that many of the estimated 20,000 jobs lost nationwide could likely be from Iowans.

But as is always the case, the cost in blood is more than the cost in treasure. More than 70,000 U.S. troops are stationed in our treaty allies South Korea and Japan, putting them in the firing line if fighting breaks out. The island of Guam, home to American troops and citizens, is not far — and well within North Korea’s missile range. Potential human cost is always difficult to estimate, but the Congressional Research Service projected that between 30,000 and 300,000 people could die in the first few days of fighting with conventional weapons alone, and that’s before missiles (and neighbors China and Russia) get drawn into the fight.

Fortunately, diplomacy in on the Korean Peninsula is working. Our allies in South Korea have been working hard toward a real solution, and it is heartening to see Secretary Pompeo re-engaging in these conversations. Any final agreement or arrangement with North Korea will need to be a thoroughly technical one that provides for concrete limits on their nuclear program and verifiable steps that they are dismantling the weapons that they have. The mechanisms for all of this — how frequent inspections will be, who will run the monitoring, and so much more — have yet to be determined. But they are the essential details of peace that we must pursue, and they should not be sacrificed in the name of a claiming quick or cosmetic victory.

The end result will surely take time to reach. Anger and destruction are quick; understanding, assurance, and security through peace take time. And to be sure, there is no doubt that Secretary Pompeo faces an uphill battle in achieving this goal — especially given the history of U.S.-North Korean negotiations. However, at the end of the day, this is the right path to follow. Peace on the Korean Peninsula is both a process and an outcome that Americans of all political stripes should be eager to celebrate.

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• Jonathan Freeman is a native of Fairfield, Iowa and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.

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