Full disclosure: I did not vote for you, nor do I support most of your policies and positions. Yet, there was a moment at one of your rallies last June when I completely agreed with your statement that you would be ready to speak to North Korea's Kim Jong-Un over a hamburger, even while I remember that, at that time, a wide range of politicians and pundits on both the left and right vociferously mocked you for your comment, as evidence that you were a complete foreign affairs neophyte.
But, as a life-long student of East Asian society and modern history, I thought you had the right instinct in contemplating a new, direct approach to the problem - particularly given the more than two decades of complete bi-partisan failure in addressing the situation in North Korea that has brought us to the dangerous brink we now face. Since the 1990's, sanctions, UN resolutions, and inspection of sea shipments have not only not halted the excesses of the North Korean regime and its nuclear development, but the situation is now poised to reach a new, and likely irreversible level of threat to the United States. When our Director of National Intelligence admits that forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons is already a "lost cause," and President Obama has stated to your transition team that North Korea is our #1 national security threat, we cannot but lay a large portion of blame for arriving at such a situation with the strategies and policies of the last 3-4 US administrations.
The traditional dismissal of a direct dialogue with the North Korean leadership centers on our hesitance to "acknowledge" or "recognize" its legitimacy, combined with a desire not to to "reward" North Korea with direct Presidential attention that would allow the North Koreans to engage in heavy internal propaganda. Critics cite the extremely distasteful "rogue" character of the regime - its autocracy, its secret police, its executions, its concentration camps, the starvation and impoverishment of the North Korean people, and now, it's growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Yet to say we cannot engage such a regime directly at the highest level is to completely ignore the facts of our own past history with other "enemy" nations - nations with which we have adeptly navigated significant shifts in our relationships.
As I published at the time of Dennis Rodman's visit to North Korea in 2013 (see Dennis Rodman - Buffoon or 'Breakthrough'), in 1972 when President Nixon and Henry Kissinger personally visited Beijing to meet with Mao Tse Tung (China's supreme leader and the then focus of a national personality cult not dissimilar to that of Kim Jong Un), the US had wisely decided to directly engage, in a more personal way, a nation that had been our "enemy" for more than 20 years -- a nuclear nation with whom we had fought a war (the Korean War), and whose leadership, according to Western historians, presided over the starvation of 30+ million people during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), and the systematic persecution, exile, torture, and execution of countless others during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In fact, at the time of Nixon's visit, the "disastrous" Cultural Revolution was still underway in China, but that did not prevent the President from attending a revolutionary "model opera" performance and dining with Jiang Qing -- Mao's wife and the subsequently vilified head of the "Gang of Four" leadership clique responsible for the worst abuses of the period. And although Nixon's dialogue with China's leaders in Beijing did, in fact, generate heavy propaganda inside the country before, during, and after his visit, that did not derail the subsequent thawing and normalization of relations between the two countries that led to real, long-lasting changes. Today, no one questions Nixon's vision in changing our approach with our former "enemy" and, in hindsight, the opening, development, and integration of China on the world stage in the four decades that followed has been nothing short of remarkable. The last thing history would ever conclude about Nixon's initiative was that he "rewarded" an autocratic regime with his willingness to meet directly and talk.
The challenge, Mr. Trump, will lie in the substance of any direct discussions. If the recent 20+ year history is an indication, any attempt to confront the North Koreans only with "big sticks" to force them to retreat from their current nuclear development and domestic abuses would likely just cause them to "dig-in" further in confrontation - the more so since North Korea's patron, China, is not committed to supporting such strong-arm tactics, even if they have supported some UN resolutions critical of North Korea. Rather, the US must be ready to calibrate both "big sticks" as well as "carrots" to engage the North Korean leadership in a potential vision of the future.
North Korean "watchers" know what the country seeks: a formal peace treaty with the US to end the Korean War, formal acknowledgment and recognition for the country, its Worker's Party and its leaders, and a likely package of economic incentives. Admittedly, given the current behavior of the North Korean regime, this seems like a very tall order for a country such as the US that is committed to democracy and economic freedom - unless, of course, such steps are answered by the North Koreans with a commitment to reform and opening, elimination (or, at least, containment) of their nuclear program, and a fundamental shift in their relationship with both our country, as well as the rest of the world.
Given the national interests of China, Russia, and South Korea (as well as Japan which lies in North Korea's nuclear harms-way) in any strategies you may consider, one approach may be to explore a "grand bargain" that addresses the concerns of all parties. Although China and Russia have supported Security Council resolutions critical of North Korea's nuclear development, these countries have no interest to confront a rapid dissolution of the North Korean regime, such as would likely result in a US strike. Both China and Russia share borders with North Korea and do not seek a sudden influx of millions of North Korean refugees that a quick implosion of the country may cause. Additionally, should the rapid demise of the current regime produce a new government either unified with South Korea, or at least allied with the US, both China and Russia would be concerned about US influence, military, and intelligence approaching their own borders. While South Korea, like North Korea, aspires to eventual reunification, it is also likely that South Korea does not want to assume the societal and financial burden of instant reunification - such as was the case in Germany in 1990.
As such, one potential "grand bargain" may exchange a peace treaty and formal recognition of North Korea and its leadership, coupled with investment by all parties in North Korean industry and infrastructure (which, per China's recent history, would enrich everyone concerned including the North Korean leadership and people), for North Korea's elimination, reduction, or containment of their nuclear arsenal, and a commitment to a fundamental change in the country - e.g. economic and political reform similar to China of the 1980's and 1990's that did not threaten the primacy of the ruling party. To allay China's own fears, we might allow China to assume a "guiding role" for such a transition based on the experience of its own evolution, while the question of Korean reunification would be deferred to some future point to be agreed by all parties - e.g. 10 years, 20 years, or other.
At the time of Kim Jong Un's ascension to the position of supreme leader, there had been expectations that he might end up being a reformer due to both his youth and experience living in the West as a student. Of course, that has not borne out. To the contrary, he has ruled with an iron fist. Nevertheless, unlike his father, Kim Jong Il, who had been completely isolated from the West during his life - only traveling to China and The Soviet Union/Russia - there still may be some hope for the young leader to respond to new thinking. We know that when Dennis Rodman met with him, he expressed his interest to speak directly with President Obama.
Mr. President-Elect: you were chosen to lead our country based on your unconventional ideas and approaches which resonated with a large portion of the US population. It's time to bring that thinking to the North Korean question. Today, there are many places you can order a burger - Washington, Beijing, Moscow.... and even in Pyongyang!