President Moon Jae-in of South Korea is ready for talks with North Korea.
According to a South Korean defense official, the talks could begin on July 21. If the North agrees to sit down, both sides would aim at reducing "all hostile activities that raise military tension."
Most analysts have reacted positively to the announcement.
At the Washington Post, Adam Taylor suggests that Moon's approach is worthy of effort. Taylor believes that unless South Korea offers concessions to the North, diplomacy is doomed. He argues that it is "hard to imagine China or Russia getting fully on board with more economic pressure. Both countries share borders with North Korea and have little desire for it to collapse."
Well, sort of.
While Taylor is correct that no one wants North Korea to collapse, he is wrong to believe that the U.S. cannot get China to do more. This isn't a binary choice between South Korean-led diplomacy or war. Instead, there's an opportunity here for a diplomatic "good cop, bad cop" routine.
First off, the U.S. can influence China to pressure North Korea. As we've previously explained, the U.S. has untapped means of increasing its political, economic, and military pressure on China. Were President Trump to apply these elements of statecraft and exact a price for Chinese inaction, China might find new reason to challenge North Korea.
Trump's bolstering of U.S. military forces in the region also sends a clear message. China knows that the U.S. is preparing in case it must impose a solution on Kim Jong Un.
This is how Trump can play the "bad cop" role.
Conversely, Moon can play the "good cop" role by offering a compromise to Kim.
Most obvious is Moon's willingness to sign a peace treaty with North Korea. After all, South Korea and North Korea are only at peace under the terms of a 1953 armistice agreement. North Korean leaders obsess over this technicality as proof they face imminent invasion.
A second carrot in Moon's pocket is new investment in North Korea's economy. Even accounting for its trade with China, the North is starved of foreign capital. Kim's early economic reforms towards greater liberalization suggest he prioritizes economic growth.
Of course, South Korea could not cut a deal without reciprocal concessions. Most notably, North Korea would have to agree to reduce its military posture along the DMZ, to refrain from regular nuclear tests, and to suspend its medium- to long-range ballistic missile research.
Still, a deal is possible.
Yet what's also promising here is how perfectly Trump and Moon fill their particular "cop" roles.
After all, where Trump is unpredictable, aggressive and bombastic, Moon is subdued, cautious, and humble. And both China and North Korea know this. They recognize that Trump is capable of anything, and that Moon desires stability at all costs. But they also know that Trump and Moon have struck up a surprisingly good relationship. During Moon's recent visit to Washington, the two leaders got along well. That relationship gives them a foundation from which to wage an effective diplomatic campaign towards North Korea.
Ultimately, the challenge posed by North Korea is increasingly existential. Correspondingly, if resolving this crisis requires outside the box thinking, so be it.
A good cop, bad cop routine is worth trying.