If the meeting is successful, it could jump-start new, more detailed talks designed to explore peaceful paths forward. Those talks would not be easy, but they could also end the escalating tensions if the U.S. and North Korea can agree on an initial set of “confidence-building measures.” One possibility is a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for modifications to large-scale joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. While many analysts argue that such modifications would undermine the alliance’s ability to defend itself, in fact, it is quite possible to design a program of smaller, less threatening exercises that would still do the job. On a political level, initial talks could also help further solidify an international coalition aligned against the North, bolstering ties with America’s South Korean ally—which is the party most acutely interested in avoiding the horrific consequences of conflict—and with China and Russia, both of whom have urged the U.S. to pursue a dialogue with Pyongyang.
But even if the meeting doesn’t set up this kind of breakthrough, there’s no harm in trying. The Trump administration will have delivered its tough message knowing it went straight to Kim Jong Un. It will have demonstrated to the Chinese and Russians that the North Koreans aren’t willing to play diplomatic ball. And it will have further prepared the ground for returning to the “maximum pressure” side of Trump’s policy equation. That would likely mean escalating sanctions against North Koreas well as China—both internationally and unilaterally—as well as further steps to strengthen American alliances in Northeast Asia. In that context, short-term measures to bolster the U.S. military presence will be important to deter Pyongyang and reassure U.S. allies during the current crisis. But Washington might also launch a comprehensive, systematic review, in cooperation with South Korea and Japan, of its military posture in the region, focused on the long-term objective of coping with a nuclear-armed North that may be around to stay for some time.
Critics will argue that a Tillerson-Ri session would amount to appeasement. Trump himself recently accused the South Korean government of the same sin for its interest in dialogue with Pyongyang. But diplomacy can serve an important role in advancing tough policies, a reality recognized by statesmen such as Winston Churchill, who famously said that “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli general and prime minister who started the Oslo peace process and once wisely observed: “You negotiate peace with your enemies, not your friends.”
Looking back at the last two decades of U.S.-North Korean relations and how we arrived at this sorry state of affairs, North Korea is of course to blame for most of what has happened. But Washington has repeatedly missed opportunities for high-level meetings with North Korea that might have made a difference in the subsequent downhill flow of history. What if President Clinton had visited North Korea in 2000 at the end of his second term, as it seemed he might, to seal a deal limiting North Korea’s ballistic missile program? That could have aborted the danger of a North Korean ICBM that we face today. What if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had attended the 2008 performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Pyongyang—also meeting Kim Jong Il—rather than dismissing the event as “just a concert”? Would the two countries have avoided the downward spiral in relations that thereafter led to the second North Korean nuclear test in 2009 and the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience”? Maybe not. But in retrospect it’s hard to see how they would have made things worse.
Similarly, a Tillerson-Ri meeting may not in the end prove an important milestone in U.S.-North Korean relations. However, one meeting could make all the difference, particularly in view of the current drift towards tension and confrontation. And we will never know if it never happens.