In October, 2000, during the final weeks of the Clinton Administration, I accompanied Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea. The trip was the first high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to Pyongyang since the Korean War ended, in 1953, and no other has taken place since. Albright’s goal was to broker a moratorium on North Korea’s missile program and to set up a summit between President Clinton and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, the father of the county’s current leader, Kim Jong-un. Albright carried a letter from Clinton outlining “the expectation of further developing relations.” Kim put on a flashy spectacle for her: a hundred thousand dancers, musicians, gymnasts, children, and soldiers performed at a ceremony in a Pyongyang stadium, complete with fireworks and a synchronized sequence in which tens of thousands of people flashed color-coded cards to depict Communist symbols and nationalist images—including a missile.
Albright and Kim held two days of intensive talks at a government guesthouse decorated with crystal chandeliers, lime-green carpet, pink and white orchids, and caged parakeets. Outside, the country was struggling to recover from a famine. The United Nations had recently estimated that two-thirds of the population had suffered chronic malnutrition. Albright visited a kindergarten where humanitarian aid, much of it from the United States, provided children’s meals. She presented Kim with a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan, his athlete hero. He wanted to dribble it, only to find that it was attached to a display box. The two leaders discussed movies and Kim said that he didn’t think he could watch “Titanic” a second time. He asked for Albright’s e-mail address.
“There is great distance between our two lands, but we are starting to discover, to our benefit, that there is no barrier to improving ties,” Albright said in a toast at a working dinner. She called for “new avenues of communication, commerce and contacts.”
The diplomacy collapsed over the next three years, for several reasons. As his Presidency was ending, Clinton had to choose between two last-ditch diplomatic initiatives—North Korea rapprochement or Palestinian-Israeli peace. Clinton opted to focus on the Middle East, in part because he thought that the Palestinian President, Yasir Arafat, was ready to make a final deal with Israel. In the end, Arafat wasn’t. Clinton left office without making progress on either front. During the Georg W. Bush Administration, North Korea was discovered to be secretly enriching uranium, which can fuel a nuclear weapon. The complicated Agreed Framework that Washington and Pyongyang signed in 1994 collapsed in 2003. Among other things, the agreement had curtailed the construction of North Korean reactors capable of producing plutonium. The United States, in turn, could not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the North.
This week, as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang flared, I spoke to Wendy Sherman, who was the State Department’s policy coördinator on North Korea under Clinton and was also on Albright’s trip. Later, under President Barack Obama, she was the State Department’s lead negotiator on the more successful Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. I asked her about whether diplomacy was still an option—given past U.S. experience—and whether Kim Jong-un, who has been in power since 2011, could ever be trusted.
“The North Koreans are not crazy in the sense that we use the word in the vernacular,” she told me. “They have a paradigm under which they operate. It’s regime survival. They believe if they don’t have nuclear weapons they won’t survive. They’ve seen leaders deposed or killed because they didn’t have a deterrent against the powerful United States.”
Diplomacy is still an option, she insisted. “Whether it can work now that they have nukes and are well on their way to a system to deliver them—it’s much, much, much, much harder,” she said. “But the Agreed Framework, as imperfect and ultimately doomed as it was, worked. For the eight years it was in place, North Korea did not get one ounce of plutonium. It did not get a nuclear weapon. And it did not get an intercontinental ballistic missile. So diplomacy is worth one more try. The consequences are so huge, and war is such a horrible option.”
Hyperbolic American rhetoric has escalated the tensions this week. President Trump’s ad-lib warning to North Korea—that it faced “fire and fury like the world has never seen”—was followed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former Marine general who is well aware of the complexities of military action against North Korea, staking out a tougher position than he has in the past. Pyongyang “should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” Mattis said in a statement on Wednesday. He noted that the United States was “making every effort” at a diplomatic resolution, but warned that North Korea “would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
North Korea countered by threatening to fire four ballistic missiles over Japan toward Guam, the small Pacific island where the United States has some seven thousand troops stationed on two military bases. Guam is about two thousand miles southeast of Pyongyang and almost four thousand miles from Hawaii. According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korea is considering a plan for “an enveloping fire” around Guam “to signal a crucial warning to the U.S.” Pyongyang also dismissed President Trump’s threat as a “load of nonsense.” “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason,” the head of North Korea’s strategic forces said in a statement. “Only absolute force can work on him.” On Thursday, Trump insisted that he would follow through on his new hardball approach. “It’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries,” Trump told reporters. “So if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.” Asked what was tougher than “fire and fury,” the President responded, “You’ll see.”
On Wednesday, I asked Michael Hayden, a former four-star general who has served as the director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, how the crisis could be defused. There is no military option short of a potentially costly and deadly war that would result in many thousands of military and civilian casualties, he said. Covert action might slow North Korea’s nuclear program, and thus relieve some of the tensions, but it couldn’t halt the country’s program. Trying to shoot down missiles in flight would be more palatable—except for the danger that it might fail. U.S. technology is not there yet. In Hayden’s view, diplomacy is still the best way out. “Yet any deal will have to, in one way or another, concede North Korea’s nuclear status,” he said. “No other deal is possible.”
James Winnefeld, a retired Navy admiral and a former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a more sanguine prognosis. “Grin and bear it,” he told me. “Let them stew in their own juices.” Negotiations are worth a try, but “we could end up negotiating with ourselves as they cross their arms and stick to their position. The North Koreans will never give up their program. This is an impoverished, authoritarian country, and this is their insurance policy. At same time, they will never use it. They know it will be the end. And they’re not suicidal.”
The United States, he said, can fortify its deterrent capabilities—for instance, by strengthening its missile defenses. It can exert greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime, or mobilize allies in joint actions. “But it’s a fool’s errand to expect China to solve this for us,” he noted. If North Korea shows signs of proliferating—that is, trying to export—its nuclear technology, the U.S. should be prepared to impose a blockade, complete with search and seizure of ships, to inspect everything that goes in or out of the country. “We Americans tend to want closure, an endgame,” Winnefeld said. “But it’s not going to happen with North Korea. So you should put yourself in the best possible position—and go on living.”