Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Death of Liberalism in Japan

A new party only strengthens the Right

by Koichi Nakano
is a professor of political science at Sophia University, in Tokyo.
The International New York Times, October 16, 2017

TOKYO — Last month, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan dissolved Parliament and called a snap election for Oct. 22, he seemed to be making the decision from a position of strength. The opposition was in disarray, and his popularity ratings were picking up again, his hawkishness apparently vindicated by North Korea’s mounting belligerence.

In fact, the decision was a sign of weakness — of Mr. Abe’s political weakness and also, more problematically for the country, of a crisis of representativeness in Japanese politics. Whatever the outcome of the election on Sunday, a gap is growing between voters’ policy preferences and the new conservative two-party system that seems to be emerging as the liberal-left opposition is shoved aside.

There is some debate over the precise circumstances under which the executive branch may dissolve the legislature, known as the Diet, but most constitutional law scholars agree that the prime minister does not have free rein, and some criticized Mr. Abe’s move as partisan and unconstitutional. The public did not seem to appreciate the decision either: In one Kyodo poll, more than 60 percent of respondents said they found it objectionable.

Mr. Abe’s decision was seen as self-serving not least because he is perceived to have been dodging the Diet’s efforts to hold him accountable for two scandals possibly involving nepotism and an alleged cover-up concerning the activities of Japan’s Self-Defense Force in South Sudan. In June, the prime minister shut down Parliament’s ordinary session soon after pushing through a controversial anti-conspiracy law that gives broad surveillance power to the police at the expense of civil liberties.

The opposition asked to convene an extraordinary session, a right guaranteed by the Constitution when one-quarter of members in either house of the Diet so request. Mr. Abe ignored the demand for more than three months, and then, no sooner did he reconvene Parliament on Sept. 28 than he dissolved it again, by calling an election that didn’t need to be held for more than a year. Mr. Abe’s evasiveness has seemed all the more suspect because he and his allies control more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses.

In reality, however, Mr. Abe’s impressive majorities rest on rather feeble foundations. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party has garnered the support of only about one-quarter of eligible voters in recent general elections. The party has nonetheless won these races by landslides, but only thanks to Japan’s first-past-the-post system (under which two-thirds of the lower house are allocated), a divided opposition and depressed voter turnout.

Voters have never given a ringing endorsement to Mr. Abe’s “Take Back Japan” agenda, which promotes a “stronger” Japan both economically and militarily with a distinctively nationalist tone, glorifying Japan’s past. He faced major protests in 2015 after proposing new security bills to legalize collective self-defense, which were seen as seriously undermining Japan’s so-called pacifist Constitution.

The security bills were passed, but have remained divisive, as have Mr. Abe’s hopes of expanding the activities of the Self-Defense Force, among other things. According to a poll by the Yomiuri newspaper earlier this month, 42 percent of respondents disapproved of Mr. Abe’s proposal to write the existence of the force into the Constitution. (Some 35 percent supported it.)

The cabinet’s approval rating dropped to 26 percent in late July, in the midst of the scandals. As of late last week, it was at about 37 percent, according to a Nikkei poll.

So how does Mr. Abe stay in power when his policies are so unpopular?

The secret of his grip has been, largely, the lack of an alternative. The centrist Democratic Party, the country’s main opposition party, was discredited after displaying inexperience and incompetence during its brief, and only, stint in government, under a former name, in 2009-12.

After the nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011 spurred renewed activism at the grassroots level, the Democratic Party formed an alliance with civil society groups and smaller leftist parties. The strategy paid off, and led to substantial gains in the 2016 upper house election. But it also came at a price, namely growing resentment among Democratic Party conservatives. And even the party’s inroads couldn’t compensate for one of the opposition’s most enduring weaknesses: its lack of a convincing leader. The conservative Seiji Maehara was elected as the Democratic Party’s new head on Sept. 1, but, perceived as a has-been, he hardly has enthused the public.

Enter Yuriko Koike, the populist and media-savvy governor of Tokyo, whose party handsomely defeated Mr. Abe’s in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July. Last month, on the very day that Mr. Abe announced the dissolution of the Diet’s lower house, Ms. Koike inaugurated a new party, the Party of Hope, with great fanfare. She then promptly struck a surprise deal with Mr. Maehara under which, in essence, the Party of Hope would take over the Democratic Party. For a moment, Ms. Koike appeared to be revving up to become a direct challenger to Mr. Abe.

But as the campaign period was about to begin, Ms. Koike announced, without much explanation, that she would not be running. That decision was another victory for Mr. Abe, and another one handed to him by his own rivals: By then, Ms. Koike had, in effect, already killed the liberal-left alliance.

Ms. Koike claims to have created the Party of Hope in order to “reset Japan.” It’s a conveniently vague slogan — and reminiscent of the Liberal Democratic Party’s own, “Take Japan Back.” The Party of Hope rests on a policy platform of catchy but vague sound bites — it is against nuclear energy, overhead power cables and hay fever, among other things — some fundamentally at odds with Ms. Koike’s avowedly conservative positions.

She hardly is an ideological foe of Mr. Abe’s: She served in his first government, including as defense minister in 2007. Which is one reason that when Ms. Koike decided not to run in the upcoming Diet race, it suddenly seemed as though she had never intended to take on Mr. Abe but rather had been positioning herself to strike a deal with him after the election.

As of late last week, several polls were predicting a solid victory for the Liberal Democratic Party, saying it would win about 300 of the 465 seats in the lower house. The Party of Hope lagged far behind, and Ms. Koike’s own popularity ratings have dropped since she withdrew from the race. But no matter; the work already is done.

The Democratic Party is nearly defunct. The bulk of its former members are running under the banner of the Party of Hope, and much of its liberal wing has decided to create the Constitutional Democratic Party. The new party’s main platform is to oppose Mr. Abe head-on on a range of issues, especially, as its name indicates, on constitutional reform. That cause is popular, but the party probably is too young to make much progress in this election.

And so even before any ballot is cast on Sunday, one outcome already seems clear: The election will spell the demise of Japan’s liberal left. A conservative two-party system without real checks and balances is emerging in Japan, and the gap keeps widening between the country’s politics and the people’s preferences.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Memorializing Sexual Violence in War


Sexual Violence in War
Professor Elisabeth Wood 
Yale University, October 7, 2009
It is not normative

An Important Statue for “Comfort Women” in San Francisco

By Sally McGrane, The New Yorker, October 12, 2017

At the back of St. Mary’s Square in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the retired judge Lillian Sing—who, long a trailblazer, was Northern California’s first Asian-American female judge—unlocked a temporary plywood gate. Behind the gate, in the corner of a terrace, stood a week-old memorial. Against the backdrop of city skyscrapers, three teen-age girls, cast in bronze, stand in a circle, holding hands. Next to them, looking on, stands the figure of an elderly woman in Korean dress—Kim Hak-sun, the first so-called comfort woman to speak out, in 1991, about her horrific sexual enslavement, during the Second World War, by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Sing had come to the park that day with Julie Tang, another retired judge and her co-chair in the project to create the memorial. “What they did was so brave,” Tang said, as she gazed up at the three girls. Chinese, Korean, and Filipino, they represent the estimated two hundred thousand women from countries across East and Southeast Asia occupied by Japan who were held in brutal state-run rape camps—a crime that went largely unacknowledged until the nineties. That was when Kim’s declaration inspired surviving comfort women in Korea, China, and elsewhere to come forward with their stories. Tang shook her head. “They were silent for fifty years, holding this shame inside them,” she said. “Victims think they are to blame. They think they did it to themselves.” With this statue—the first to be erected in a major U.S. city, though smaller memorials to comfort women exist in places like Glendale, California, and Palisades Park, New Jersey—Tang, Sing, and the local coalition they assembled want to change that kind of thinking. By bringing attention to the comfort women’s history, they hope to draw attention to ongoing problems of human trafficking and sex crimes.

This may not be as self-evident as it sounds. Discussing the statue, Dara Kay Cohen, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard, said, “As a scholar of wartime rape, I think it is extraordinary.” Cohen has interviewed women captured as sex slaves in Sierra Leone; she found their stories of being raped dozens of times a day by fighters, even when the women were sick, “eerily similar” to those of the comfort women. “Publicly memorializing the rape of women is rare,” she said. “Women are half of humanity,” Elaine Kim, a professor of Asian-American and Asian-diaspora studies at U.C. Berkeley, and a supporter of the statue (whose unveiling brings the total number of public statues in San Francisco of real women to three), said. “And women are not represented in history. Nothing will be done about crimes like these if they remain in the shadows.”

The Japanese Army’s “comfort stations,” initiated in the early nineteen-thirties, were expanded extensively following the Nanjing massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, in 1937. According to a paper by the Yale political-science professor Elisabeth Jean Wood, the stated goal of the comfort stations was to reduce random civilian rapes. Girls were seized from the local populations. Conditions were brutal, and death rates were high. “In one day, we had to serve forty to fifty soldiers,” Lee Ok-seon, a Korean survivor, who was kidnapped at the age of fifteen, recalled in video testimony. Girls who refused were lined up against the wall and slashed open with knives. “I don’t call it a ‘comfort station.’ I call it a slaughterhouse,” Lee said. Jan Ruff-O’Herne, a Dutch girl, was taken from the Indonesian prisoner-of-war camp where she was living with her family. In a television interview, she recalled arriving at the comfort station: “We started protesting right away. We said we were forced into this, they had no right to do this, it was against the Geneva Convention. And they just laughed at us. They said they could do with us what they liked.”

After the war, survivors risked rejection by their families. Ill and impoverished, many never married or had families of their own. Ruff-O’Herne had two daughters, but did not tell them what happened to her. “You know, how can you tell your daughters?” she said in the same interview. “All these years, I was too ashamed. You think, What will they think of me?” But, after seeing Kim Hak-sun and others come forward and struggle to have their stories heard, Ruff-O’Herne decided that she had to help by speaking up. (Her daughters hugged her.)

The former congressman Mike Honda told me that, in addition to the stigma faced by victims of sexual crimes, the Japanese government’s stance on the issue has been a problem. He said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “flip-flops”: “He says, ‘We’re really sorry,’ then, ‘It never happened.’ He’s all over the field.” Honda, who spent his own early years in a Japanese-American internment camp, said that he first heard of the comfort women in the nineties, after an aide returned from an exhibition visibly upset. Honda became determined to learn more. “We know a lot about what happened in the war in Europe, but not a lot about what happened in Asia,” he said.

After he researched the comfort women, he decided to act. “For me, as a Japanese-American, there was a parallel,” he said. “We fought to have the U.S. government apologize to us. Now we have to get the Japanese government to recognize the historical facts.” In 2007, Honda brought survivors—including Ruff-O’Herne—to testify before Congress, and successfully pushed through legislation demanding that the Japanese government apologize. “Telling the story of the comfort women to the public is powerful,” Honda said. “The statue is a physical representation of something that happened in the past that needs to be learned about, in order to prevent violence against women and end human trafficking—which is a one-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar industry.”

Steven Whyte, the Carmel-based artist who created San Francisco’s memorial, had a similar learning curve. “I was familiar with the term ‘comfort women,’ but I didn’t realize the extent of the torture,” he said. Once he saw the call for applications, he researched the topic, and wanted the job so much that he reduced his regular prices. “You think of every girl you’ve ever known—your nieces, your daughters, your girlfriends, everything. It’s desperately upsetting.”

While most of the comfort-women statues around the world have been put up by South Koreans or members of the Korean diaspora, the push for this statue was led by San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, with support from several other groups, including members of the Japanese-, Filipino-, Korean-, and Jewish-American communities, Eric Mar, who served as the city supervisor during the planning-and-design process and championed the project, said. “I thought, to be successful, we had to build a pan-Asian coalition,” he explained. Mentioning his own teen-age daughter, Mar began to weep. “It’s very emotional, for a lot of people.”

At the cavernous Cathay House restaurant, just up the street from St. Mary’s Square, Sing and Tang were joined by Judith Mirkinson, the president of the board of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. Over hot toddies and Chinese chicken salad, the women talked about the challenges they faced in bringing the statue into being—including local Japanese-Americans who say they worry that the statue could give rise to a new wave of discrimination, and a vigorous campaign of condemnation from the Japanese government. Whyte received some twelve hundred negative social-media messages and e-mails, including form letters copied and pasted from a Japanese Web site threatening economic boycotts of his work. Activists attended hearings about the statue and called an elderly survivor a prostitute when she testified before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. More recently, the mayor of Osaka threatened to end his city’s long-standing sister-city relationship with San Francisco if the statue is not removed—and the Japanese consul-general in San Francisco, Jun Yamada, wrote a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle calling the statue a “half-told” story, and warning that if the city wants to “give equal treatment to all cases, there will be no free space left anywhere.”

Those spearheading the memorial fear that pressures like these may delay the bureaucratic procedures that still need to take place before the plywood gate comes down and the statue is visible to the public. At lunch, Sing said that she felt that racism in the United States had played a silencing role when it comes to recognizing what happened to the comfort women. “Why did this take so long?” she said. Kim Hak-sun “spoke out in 1991. There is the race issue: Asian women’s lives didn’t matter, like black men’s lives don’t matter.” Still, the three women agreed that it is no accident that this statue is here. “Even if San Francisco is changing, progressivism is still woven into the fabric of this city,” Mirkinson said. “And we are on the Pacific Rim,” Tang said. “We are closer to Asia, and thirty-three per cent of the city is Asian. People bring with them family memory that goes back to World War Two.”

For Lee Yong-soo, an eighty-nine-year-old survivor who flew from Korea for the unveiling, San Francisco seemed dauntingly far away. But when she arrived she was glad she had made the journey. “When I saw the girls holding hands, it brought tears in my eyes because she looked just like the girl I once was,” Lee wrote in an e-mail. “We need more memorials to remember the truth. I am the living proof of the history. But when I’m gone, who will tell the story to the next generation?”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Monday in Washington October 16, 2017

HISTORY AND FUTURE OF THE GLOBAL HIV/AIDS RESPONSE. 10/16, 10:00am-11:30am. Sponsor: Global Health Policy Center, CSIS. Speakers: Dr. Michael Merson, Wolfgang Joklik Professor of Global Health, Vice President and Vice Provost for Global Strategy and Programs, Duke University; Dr. Stephen Inrig, Associate Professor, Mount Saint Mary’s University; Moderator: Sara M. Allinder, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Global Health Policy Center, CSIS.

HONG KONG: A SNAPSHOT TWENTY YEARS AFTER HANDOVER. 10/16
, 10:30an-2:30pm, Lunch. Sponsors: Carnegie; Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. Speakers: Paul Chan, Financial Secretary, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Governent; Clement Leung, Hong Kong Commissioner, Economic and Trade Affairs to the United States; Douglas H. Paal, Vice President, Carnegie. Richard C. Bush, Senior Fellow, Brookings. Peter J. Levesque, CEO, Modern Terminals Limited; James V. Feinerman, Professor, Asian Legal Studies, Georgetown University; Helen Chan, Government Economist, Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. By invitation.

TERROR, PROPAGANDA AND THE BIRTH OF THE “NEW MAN”: EXPERIENCES FROM CUBA, NORTH KOREA, AND THE SOVIET UNION. 10/16, 11:00am-12:30pm, Lunch. Sponsor: CATO. Speakers: Andrei Lankov, Professor, Kookmin University, Republic of Korea; Yuri Pérez, Latin America expert, Freedom House; Andrei Illarionov, Senior Fellow, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute; moderated by Marian L. Tupy, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute. 

INITIATIVE FOR SUSTAINABLE ENERGY POLICY (ISEP). 10/16, 12:30-2:00pm. Sponsor: ISEP, SAIS, Johns Hopkins. Speaker: Rachel Kyte, CEO, Sustainable Energy for All, Special Representative, UN Secretary-General; Moderator: Johannes Urpelainen, Professor, Energy, Resources and Environment, SAIS, Johns Hopkins. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Monday in Washington, October 9, 2017

Most of Washington is quiet today as it is a Federal Holiday.

Perspectives on US-China Relations in a Time of Rapid Change

Sponsored by Johns Hopkins SAIS China Studies, Foreign Policy Institute, and the China-US Exchange Foundation and

Panelists:
Professor Cui Liru
Senior Advisor & Former President
China Institutes of Contemporary International (CICIR)

Professor David M. Lampton
George and Sadie Hyman Professor of China Studies
Director, SAIS China, Johns Hopkins SAIS

Ms. Amy Celico
Principal, Albright Stonebridge Group

Moderator:
Dr. John Lipsky
Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute
Peter G. Peterson Distinguished Scholar, Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins SAIS

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Can Trump make feminist history - unlikely

Women, peace and security: Trump can make feminist history by signing this bill

Allison Peters, Opinion,  international consultant focused on gender and the prevention of violent extremism and countering terrorism. She is the former Director of Policy and Security Programs at the nongovernmental organization Inclusive Security and previously served as a foreign policy and defense adviser in the U.S. Senate. 

USA Today,  Oct. 3, 2017

Women are vital to keeping the world stable and prosperous. This law would make sure they participate in U.S. policy-making at home and abroad.

As North Korea ratchets up its threats, conflicts rage from Syria to Yemen and terrorists launch attacks on innocent civilians, Congress just quietly passed historic legislation calling for more women to be involved in peace and security efforts.

That could not come soon enough.

Under the bipartisan Women, Peace and Security Act (S. 1141) by law it would be a core priority for U.S. diplomatic, development and military personnel to include women in preventing and resolving conflicts.

This bill has been over five years in the making and is perhaps needed now more than ever. Between 1992 and 2011, only 9% of negotiators at official peace talks were women. Women still make up less than 5% of police and military forces in many places around the globe, and at the local level are rarely consulted in security initiatives.

These dismal figures have not improved significantly in recent decades, even though the way we build and maintain peace is clearly not working. In the last nearly two decades alone, 90% of conflicts occurred in countries that had already experienced a previous conflict. Terrorism continues to pose a serious threat to global stability as does food scarcity, weak governance, climate change and beyond.

It’s time for a change.

Congress passing this bipartisan bill was a strong first step, and President Trump should immediately sign it into law. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), must hold leaders at all levels in their departments accountable for its implementation.

A new law like this would signal to women around the globe that their voices are being heard by Congress even in rocky political times. While the proof will be in how it's carried out, the bill not only mandates that women's participation be a priority for relevant federal agencies, it requires personnel for these agencies to consult with women on the ground in regions affected by conflict and to receive proper training to do so. Importantly, this bill also strengthens the ability of Congress to oversee this work.

The U.S. has had a national strategy on women’s participation in peace and securityprocesses since former president Obama instituted one by executive order in 2011 and it was updated in 2016. This bill would ensure a strategy remains the law of the land in the Trump administration and its successors.

Critics might note that the U.S. is dealing with numerous foreign policy challenges and security threats and argue that focusing on women’s participation would be a “soft” distraction from these priorities. However, research shows us time and again that gender diverse groups are more likely to effectively prevent and resolve conflicts in the long-term.

Afghanistan is a strong example where the U.S. should learn from its mistakes. Back in 2001, U.S. and allied NATO forces put billions of dollars into stabilizing the country and assisting in reconstruction. But with little strategy at first for consulting with Afghan women and including them in decision-making, the rollout was an almost entirely all male affair.

Women were often left in homes while all-male circles of soldiers and tribal elders discussed their fate. Existing norms and stereotypes prevailed, and the men were hindered in their ability to gain access to a range of views in communities where terrorist groups and insurgents had embedded.

Women had a deep understanding of community needs and their participation in emerging government and security institutions is critical for long-term stability. But their contribution was initially left untapped. Over the years, NATO saw firsthand the importance of including women and has since documented numerous examples where engaging with Afghan women led to better results.

Similarly, the International Peace Institute found peace accords are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years if women participate in their creation. This is because women often bring up issues related to the underlying causes of conflict and structural barriers that contribute to violence.

The evidence is so obvious, it's no wonder Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and House worked tirelessly to pass this bill.

However, staff at the working level in our government cannot make progress on these issues without support from senior leadership. Congress would be wise to press political appointees during confirmation hearings on how they will implement the mandates in this bill. A formal inter-agency coordinating structure is also critical. It is inefficient for each of these agencies to be working to promote women’s leadership without meeting regularly to discuss their efforts.

Finally, Congress must see to it that resources are committed. In the budget submitted to Congress in May, the Trump Administration requested to cut by more than half the miniscule amount of foreign aid requested the previous year for women, peace, and security efforts. Congress must correct course and ensure any funding bills moving forward explicitly protect resources for these important initiatives.

Women's engagement at all levels of peace and security efforts is essential. Failing to invest in this agenda endangers our national security and hurts our efforts to advance our foreign policy priorities.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Comfort Women Conference October 13, 2017


The Redress Movement for the Victims of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery 

8th Annual Conference

Friday, October 13, 2017 9:00 AM

Rosenthal Library
Auditorium (Room 230)
Queens College
Flushing, New York




The forced mobilization of an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women and girls in the Indo-Pacific to serve members of the Japanese military, colonial administrators, and businessmen during the Asia-Pacific War (1932-1945) was a brutal war crime. These victims of sexual slavery have been referred to as “comfort women,” a government designation to set apart these procured beings from prostitutes and other female entertainers in order to sanction trafficking them to military installations. The contemporary comfort women designation applies whether the victim was trafficked from one colony to another or detained briefly as a privilege of victory. The Japanese government has yet to make a sincere, unequivocal apology.

In 1990, a redress movement began in South Korea as an attempt to persuade the Japanese government to apologize for its past actions and to sufficiently compensate the surviving victims. This movement has received global support from governments and groups both in Asia and in the West.

The conference invites 18 well-known “comfort women” scholars and redress movement leaders from South Korea, Japan, and the United States to review the 27-year old movement and the Japanese government’s response.

The U.S and North Korea: Headed To War or Dialogue?

By Daniel Sneider, Lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University and APP member.

Tokyo Business Today, October 3,2017

Governments around the globe, from Berlin to Beijing, and not least of all, in Pyongyang, have been desperately trying to figure out what the United States is going to do in North Korea. Is it headed for war or for dialogue?

Senior Japanese officials, according to multiple sources, decided to ignore the twitter feed of President Donald Trump in trying to discern American policy. Instead they rely on the words, in private and public, of the responsible figures in his administration – Defense Secretary James Mattis first of all, followed by National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R.McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The events of the past week have demonstrated how difficult it is to actually operate on that basis. Secretary Tillerson garnered headlines when he told reporters in Beijing, after meetings with senior Chinese officials, that the U.S. was in direct contact with North Korea through multiple channels.

A day later, the President tweeted out that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” and that he should “save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done,” read as yet another threat to take military action.

Who to believe? In reality, the Trump administration has been pursuing a policy that combines escalating sanctions and pressures on the North Korean regime, including consciously evoking threats of military action, at the same time that has engaged the Pyongyang regime in attempts at dialogue.

Tillerson’s admission of this in Beijing was not a surprise to those closely following North Korea policy – it was meant more for the purpose of giving Xi Jinping something to offer the upcoming Communist Party gathering as evidence of his ‘success’ in getting the Americans to engage in serious dialogue with North Korea.

Contact with North Korea has been ongoing for months, mainly by the State Department’s Amb Joseph Yun, the Special Representative for North Korea policy, through the North Korean mission to the United Nations. Amb Yun, according to people familiar with his thinking, has been looking for openings to hold serious talks with Pyongyang.

In May, on the sidelines of a non-official dialogue held in Norway, Yun met with Choe Son-hui, the director of the North American department in the North Korean Foreign Ministry. Yun had hoped to open a broader discussion but Tillerson and the White House limited him to first dealing with the fate of several Americans held captive in the north. Yun traveled to Pyongyang which led to the release of the student Otto Warmbier the following month, though he died within days of his return to the U.S.

Early in September, a similar meeting took place in Switzerland, attended by experts from the U.S., South Korea, Japan and elsewhere and by a North Korean delegation led by Choe Kang Il, the deputy director of the North American division. For the North Koreans it was more of a fact-finding effort, trying to understand where U.S. policy was headed, and delivering a rather tough message about their willingness to talk.

“The North Koreans are also interested in talks and they know the need for talks,” one participant told me. “But they want to make sure that U.S. hostilities toward North Korea are stopped for talks to be resumed.”

For Pyongyang, the participant said, this means the U.S. halting the threat of use of nuclear weapons, dropping its sanctions policy, and ending U.S. military exercises it regards as threatening, particularly those aimed at operations to target the North Korean leadership. Any discussion based on the goal of denuclearization, he said, is not on the current Pyongyang agenda.

Trump senior officials have repeatedly signaled, in some detail, their readiness to talk but only on the basis of the previous commitments to denuclearization. In a rare semi-public appearance on September 25 at the Institute of the Study of War, National Security advisor McMaster acknowledged there was no quick military solution – “there’s not a precision strike that solves the problem,” he said, reported DefenseOne.

Talks are possible, he went on, but not if Pyongyang continues to develop its missile and nuclear weapons capability, indicating that a halt in testing was a first goal. He further described confidence-building steps the North Koreans could take – though he said they were not preconditions for talks – including accepting inspections of its nuclear facilities and a declaration of its eventual willingness to give up its nuclear weapons, Bloomberg reported.

Those steps are already considered unacceptable to Pyongyang. “The problem is not sitting down for talks,” observes David Straub, currently the Sejong-LS Fellow at Seoul’s influential Sejong Institute. “The problem is what you talk about.”

Straub, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. State Department who participated in the 6-party negotiations with North Korea, is deeply skeptical about the prospects for talks, concerned that they will inevitably lead to defacto acceptance of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, deeply undermining the U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan, not mention its broader non-proliferation policy toward Iran and other aspirants for nuclear weapons status. “I don’t believe any talks with North Korea that I can imagine would be of any use.”

A former senior U.S. government official with long experience with North Korea shares these concerns. “I’m concerned that, based on where we are now, the only thing worse than not having a dialogue is having a dialogue, since it would probably be about the things that the North Koreans want to talk about, and definitely not about denuclearization,” he told me. “The North Koreans are deeply dug in and determined to remain a nuclear-weapon state, at almost all costs.”

Such experienced North Korea policy hands welcome the Trump administration’s efforts to vastly tighten sanctions, particularly the flow of money through China, Russia and other venues, as part of a broader strategy of containment and deterrence. But it requires consistency and patience to carry out.

“I’m not sure this U.S. Administration has the bandwidth, the moral authority, the international respect, and the belief in U.S. international leadership necessary to effectively pursue this course,” says the former senior U.S. government official. “At the end of the day, they will either blink or go to war. And if they blink, they will lose credibility and scare the hell out of our allies. And since allies mean little to this President, I fear that is what he may do.”

The fear of war, triggered by miscalculation and misreading, fed by the rhetoric from both leaders, is widespread in Washington, and beyond, including in Tokyo. Among the allies, however, there are some differences. The South Korean government of Moon Jae-in would likely welcome any talks as it would confirm its own desire for engagement with Pyongyang. “Moon wouldn’t worry about what the conditions were,” says a close Western observer of South Korea.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has staked his own re-election campaign on a tough stance toward North Korea, would likely find any move toward talks, particularly in the short term, a problem. But Japan cannot afford to publicly take a stance different than the Trump administration.

The question at hand is whether there is any way to get around the contradictory conditions from both sides. “If this is the core issue,” says the former senior U.S. official, “then the solution is to arrange a dialogue with no pre-set agenda and with the only ground rule being that each side is free to raise any issue it wishes.”

An additional idea would be to carry out initial talks on a military to military basis, in the form of a discussion of “confidence building measures,” so-called CBMs, an instrument used for dialogue in the Cold War. These could deal with measures such as reducing military exercises on both sides, or procedures to declare tests of missiles.

According to the participant in the Swiss talks, this idea was raised with the North Koreans and elicited a positive response. On the U.S. side, this would put management of the dialogue firmly in the hands of the military, led by Secretary Mattis, working closely with McMaster and the NSC. Given the weak leadership from an understaffed State Department, this may be preferable to the Trump administration.

But this is a difficult and narrow road to talks. “The North Koreans have never been willing to let us talk to their military,” notes Straub, though a senior North Korean military leader did visit Washington in the closing days of the Clinton administration.

An intriguing route to dialogue may lie via Moscow. The senior North Korean diplomat who heads the North American division, Choe, who was the interlocutor with Amb Yun, spent extended hours last week in Moscow. Sources familiar with Russian thinking point out that the North Koreans probably find it easier to talk to them than to the Chinese, though Moscow is unlikely to act without consulting Beijing. The Russian channel may pose difficulties for Trump officials, however, due to the scrutiny of their ties to Russia these days.

There is considerable momentum in Washington policy circles in favor of talks with North Korea, most of all to avert conflict that arises out of lack of communication. Despite Trump’s tweets, the U.S. government has been pressuring non-government groups that have hosted dialogues with the North Koreans to hold off in order to maximize the prospects for official talks, a well-informed source told me.

But before these glimmers of an opening can have a chance, Pyongyang will have to desist from further provocative demonstrations of its nuclear prowess. South Korean intelligence officials predict some kind of missile test or similar action to coincide with two upcoming North Korean anniversaries, on October 10 and 18th. A U.S. aircraft carrier is being moved into position in the Sea of Japan in time for possible tests.

If the past is a guide, Kim Jong Un, with a little push from Donald Trump, will sabotage the fledgling efforts at diplomacy.