By George Friedman

It’s a toss-up whether the United States and North Korea will sue for peace or opt for war. Still, there appears to be interest on both sides in easing tensions. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has even intimated a possibility for direct talks. Informal talks have taken place for the past few months, of course, but these would have clearer imperatives: that Pyongyang not fire missiles at Guam and that the United States reduce the amount of military exercises it holds with South Korea. But is it even possible to reach a settlement on the terms they want?

The U.S. demand is easy to state but difficult to implement. It wants North Korea to reverse course on its nuclear weapons program. Merely halting the progress Pyongyang has already made would enable North Korea to resume development at a later date. In fact, earlier agreements fell apart because they neglected to include such a provision, and so the North Koreans were able to pick up exactly where they left off. Hence the current crisis.

Correcting that mistake would entail dismantling certain facilities and, since the U.S. would never expect North Korea to honor its commitment, Washington would demand permanent inspectors with unfettered access to every facet of the program to remain in the country. So while the U.S. demand may seem modest, it is in fact radical. Simply forfeiting a nuclear weapons program would give Pyongyang nothing. The government is unlikely to accept peace on these terms unless it can demand some substantial concessions from Washington.

This brings us to North Korea’s demands, which are much broader than Washington’s. Pursuing a nuclear weapons program, one meant to discourage any threat to the regime and thus ensure its survival, demanded a huge amount of resources. The North Koreans have not come this far simply to walk away with nothing to show for it. If they were to agree to abandon their program, they would do so only if another means of security were in place.

North Korean soldiers look at South Korea across the DMZ in 2011 in Panmunjom, South Korea. CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Images

This would likely require a new regional framework whereby the U.S. would enhance North Korea’s position at the expense of its allies. The framework would also have to weaken U.S. influence in the region, perhaps by relinquishing its relationship with South Korea and withdrawing its forces from the peninsula, or perhaps by keeping its Navy out of the Sea of Japan. Maybe U.S. aircraft would be prohibited from flying near Korean airspace, and maybe Washington would have to rework its treaties with Japan so that its troops there did not threaten North Korea. In short, if North Korea must abandon its military capabilities, so too must the United States, or so the thinking of Pyongyang would go. The U.S. will not alter the regional balance of power lightly. And even if it did, it would have to consider the financial burden of propping up the government in Pyongyang. The United States is unlikely to accept this.

War is the one option the U.S. has to prevent North Korea from completing its nuclear weapons program – if it has not done so already – without giving up anything (except blood) in return. But, as has been widely discussed, this option would be difficult and bloody, and if success is measured by the elimination of all nuclear facilities, there is no guarantee that it would be successful. North Korea is not particularly keen on the prospect of war, either – it knows war introduces the possibility of annihilation. But it has come to read the fear in South Korea, which would likely bear the brunt of the war, as a check on U.S. intent. This dramatically reduces the chance of war.

That means North Korea has options and therefore the upper hand in negotiations, at least for now. It can press on with its nuclear program, or it can, in theory, negotiate a redeployment of U.S. forces. If there are no negotiations, North Korea gets a nuclear weapons program. If there are negotiations, and the negotiations fail, North Korea gets a nuclear weapons program. If there are negotiations, and the negotiations succeed, North Korea will lose its nuclear weapons program but gain a tremendous amount of concessions from the United States. Either way, North Korea comes out ahead.

Of course, agreements have been made and broken before. If North Korea surrendered its program, the U.S. could renege on whatever promises it made, re-establish military ties with South Korea, and re-deploy its naval and air forces. The government in Pyongyang understands as much – even expects as much – so it is highly unlikely to reverse course on its program.

It is easier to hold talks than to reach a settlement. It is easier to reach a settlement than to honor it. And this is why wars happen. Wars create a finality that diplomacy can’t. Sometimes.

George Friedman

George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures.

Dr. Friedman is also a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book, THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond, published February 25, 2020 describes how “the United States periodically reaches a point of crisis in which it appears to be at war with itself, yet after an extended period it reinvents itself, in a form both faithful to its founding and radically different from what it had been.” The decade 2020-2030 is such a period which will bring dramatic upheaval and reshaping of American government, foreign policy, economics, and culture.

His most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.