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June 28, 2017

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Talking to North Korea is certainly worthwhile for the U.S. to undertake

China alone has the leverage to force North Korea to give up its nukes by withholding vital food and energy supplies. But no one seriously believes China would use its leverage because that would risk destabilizing its neighbor, to say nothing of opening up the possibility of unification with the South — a military ally of the U.S. — if the North were to subsequently collapse.

So why bother talking to officials in Pyongyang if it's going to be fruitless? Three reasons still make it worthwhile:

First, for as long as there are six-party talks focused on denuclearization, North Korea will be denied what it craves most: formal recognition as a nuclear power. And the other players — the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, and by extension the larger international community — can claim they have not capitulated to the North Korean "fait accompli." Otherwise, Iran and other nuclear aspirants probably would be emboldened.

Second, if carefully negotiated, the talks could also put a cap on further nuclear weapons development by North Korea, whether it be the conversion of remaining plutonium stocks into bombs or a whole new assembly line that relies on highly enriched uranium. A moratorium on further testing would be a good start. The other five parties could also collectively make clear to North Korea the prohibitive consequences should it ever transfer nuclear materials to non-state actors.

Third, the talks and the potential inspections of nuclear sites that could conceivably follow could provide a window on what is happening inside North Korea. Moreover, they provide a useful and ready diplomatic mechanism to manage the consequences of severe instability in North Korea should the situation suddenly deteriorate.

After all, even North Korean ducks don't live forever.

Stares is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the co-author of "Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea."

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