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Talk with North Korea? Recent precedents help.

Shift in thought

President Trump’s hope for talks with North Korea could be based on recent cases of other adversaries that shifted away from violence and threats.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gestures as he announces a new policy document in Doha, Qatar, May 1.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

When President Trump says he might be willing to talk to North Korea under certain conditions, his hope may be based on examples of other countries and groups – also known as a nuclear or terrorist threat – that have recently changed their hard positions. To see an enemy as hopelessly intractable is sometimes not the best path to peace.

Iran is the most obvious recent example. The United States and other countries agreed to talk with Iran, finally reaching a deal in 2015 to curb its nuclear program. The Islamic regime backed down largely because it was losing support from restless young Iranians hurt by an economy suffering from sanctions and low oil prices.

Mr. Trump might also point to the negotiations in Colombia that led to an agreement this past year ending a long and violent civil war. The Marxist rebel group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) agreed to talks in large part because it was losing the war. But rebel leaders also made major concessions after realizing how their own supporters and families were as much victims of useless violence as pro-government civilians. “There is no room for winners or losers when you achieve peace through negotiations,” stated FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda. “Colombia wins, death loses.”

In Spain and France, meanwhile, the separatist group known as ETA – which stands for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom – announced last month that it had fully disarmed. The group killed hundreds of people over decades in an attempt to create a Basque homeland. But after losing popular support, it has rejected violence and is ready to talk. One model for ETA is the peace process in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army disarmed and its political arm, Sinn Féin, was granted a political role.

Another terrorist group that appears to have made concessions is Hamas, the anti-Israel Islamic group that governs Palestinians in Gaza. On Monday, it issued a policy document that accepts the idea of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. Hamas still does not recognize Israel. And its anti-Semitic charter from 1988 remains intact. But Hamas feels pressure to change from Arab states. In addition, a poll in February by the Arab World for Research and Development found an increase in support among West Bank Palestinian youth for a two-state solution with Israel. Last year, 57 percent opposed such a plan. The new poll found a more even split, with 47.7 percent opposed and 47.4 in favor.

While Hamas and Israel are a long way from negotiations, Israel does talk to the Palestinian Authority. And the PA is in contact with Hamas, as is Egypt. Trump, meanwhile, has started again the perpetual US search for an end to that conflict.

Like President Barack Obama before him, Trump may believe that not talking to adversaries should not be considered punishment to them. Keeping the option of negotiations can make it easier for an enemy to shift positions.

Former US negotiator Victor Cha says he used to tell his North Korean counterparts that the US is only hostile to their nuclear weapons. “With regard to the rest of your people and everything, we don’t have a hostile policy,” he said. Such a distinction – between people and their actions – can help keep open a door for negotiations.