North Korea’s surprising offer Tuesday to hold talks with the United States, holding out the eventual prospect of abandoning its nuclear weapons, throws the diplomatic ball dramatically back into Washington’s court.
While the overture is a seeming triumph of the “sunshine” diplomacy of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the Trump administration’s increased pressure, the big question remains whether the White House is willing or able to grab the opportunity.
“The Trump administration has been all about applying maximum pressure, with the whole purpose to bring North Korea back to the table to talk about denuclearization,” says Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Kim has said, ‘Yeah, we can talk about that.’ So now what? This is more a test of how serious the Trump administration is, rather than Pyongyang.”
After a landmark meeting with senior South Korean officials Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he’d be open to negotiations with the United States to discuss normalizing relations, including a willingness to discuss the country’s controversial nuclear program. Pyongyang said it wouldn’t need nuclear weapons if its security is guaranteed, and offered to freeze nuclear and missile tests during the talks. The two Korean leaders will meet next month to lay the groundwork for a possible diplomatic solution to an impasse that has raised fears of a devastating conventional or even nuclear war in East Asia.
“Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea,” President Donald Trump tweeted early Tuesday. “May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
The move culminates a month of Olympics-fueled diplomacy in the divided Korean Peninsula and amid an escalating pressure campaign from the United States and the United Nations, including fresh sanctions on North Korea in recent weeks. But Moon has also stepped up diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang as fears have grown of a preemptive U.S. military strike.
Facing its first high-stakes diplomatic negotiation, the Trump administration will come to the table shorthanded. The State Department’s top point man on North Korea, Joseph Yun, unexpectedly retired last week. And Victor Cha, who was the president’s initial pick for the vacant ambassadorship in Seoul, was nixed after a last-minute change of heart by the White House, reportedly over differences of opinion on the wisdom of a preemptive U.S. military strike. Both were seasoned diplomats who had hands-on experience with the North Koreans.
“Now is when you would want serious, experienced diplomats to be engaging in a negotiation,” says Ely Ratner, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as former Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor. “You would need the best of the diplomatic corps to even understand whether there was a deal to be had here.”
Given Kim’s past belligerence, dogged pursuit of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, and need to maintain control over an internally fracturing regime, “we cannot definitely determine what his real intent is,” says Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“Is he Hitler going to Munich in 1938, or is he really prepared for some kind of peaceful solution?”
A senior Trump administration official expressed caution about Kim’s offer, saying the United States remained open to dialogue but that the regime had a long history of breaking agreements.
“If their plan is simply to buy time, in order to continue building their arsenal, talks aren’t going to get very far at all. Because we’ve seen that movie before,” the official told reporters Tuesday.
But the official said the proposal showed the U.S. sanctions effort was having a genuine impact and that the administration would keep “an open mind.”
North Korea’s apparent willingness to come to the table marks a sharp turnaround from the mutual threats, insults, and bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang and Washington over the past year, accompanied by ominous developments in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile technologies. But it’s not the first time North Korea’s leaders have tendered an apparent olive branch, only to see a diplomatic solution undercut by unbridgeable gulfs between the two sides.
That the initiative came directly from Kim after his meeting with South Korean officials could be a significant departure from Pyongyang’s previous stabs at fig-leaf diplomacy, Town says.
“Sure, we’ve heard it before, but not from Kim Jong Un himself. He’s proven himself to be different from his father and grandfather,” she says.
Former Obama administration officials chalk up the apparent opening to the combination of Moon’s diplomatic efforts and, especially, the Trump administration’s heightened pressure on Pyongyang, saying said this time could be different from North Korea’s bad-faith overtures of the past.
“We may in fact be seeing a change in Kim Jong Un’s calculus, and we ought to explore that,” Ratner says. “What we’re hearing is a little different from what we’ve heard before … The administration would be nuts to brush this off or turn it down.”
Another ray of hope is the North Korean regime’s newfound willingness to accept continued joint military exercises held by the United States and South Korea. Just days ago, Pyongyang was threatening to “counter” the annual military drills that North Korea sees as a dress rehearsal for forcible regime change. Seoul and Washington announced they would hold the exercises later in March, after postponing them for the Winter Olympics, but might have to scale them back in the future as a concession to Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un’s willingness to allow the U.S.-South Korean military exercises to go ahead is “quite significant,” Ratner said, as it would have provided him with a convenient way to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
The offer to put denuclearization on the table could also end up being a bone of contention between Pyongyang and Washington. Vice President Mike Pence said last month that the United States would continue to squeeze North Korea until it gave up its pursuit of nuclear weapons; North Korea’s outreach dangles the prospect of a nuclear-free peninsula as the outcome of diplomatic talks, not as a precondition.
Pence on Tuesday reiterated the U.S. desire to withhold carrots until Pyongyang starts to roll back its weapons program.
“The United States and our allies remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program,” he said. “All options are on the table and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable, and concrete steps toward denuclearization.”
Getting rid of nuclear weapons is not the only likely sticking point. At the high-level dinner on Monday, Kim reportedly spoke of writing a “new history” of reunification of the peninsula, which has been uneasily split into northern and southern halves since the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953. That doesn’t mean the kind of democratic-led reunification that Seoul and Washington have sought for decades, says RAND’s Bennett.
“He was not talking about South Korean style unification — he was talking about unification under his control,” he says.
North Korea also said that it wouldn’t need nuclear weapons at all if its security were guaranteed, which seemed to open the door to a negotiated solution. The problem is that Pyongyang’s understanding of a security guarantee is likely vastly different than that envisioned in Washington, including at a minimum and end to hostile U.S. policies, economic sanctions, joint military exercises, and possibly even an end to the decades-long U.S. military presence in South Korea.
What’s more, for years North Korea has cited the example of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who gave up his nuclear weapons in 2003 only to be toppled with U.S. assistance almost a decade later. For Pyongyang, the only security guarantee worth having would likely be a peninsula reunified on its terms, Bennett said.
And coming hard on the heels of intensified U.S. sanctions — including the broadest effort yet to forestall North Korea’s ability to use its merchant marine to evade sanctions — the North Korean offer to come to the table seems to imply that it expects concessions in return. Congressional aides described the latest North Korean outreach as a charm offensive meant to secure some relief from sanctions that have dramatically curtailed its ability to earn hard currency through exports.
The Trump administration had never offered the prospect of limited sanctions relief as a carrot in its “maximum pressure” campaign, and administration officials gave no indication Tuesday they were ready to relent.
But what is clear is that the North Korean outreach will make it more difficult for Washington to coax other countries, especially China, into supporting additional sanctions measures against Pyongyang. Last Friday, China already vetoed efforts to blacklist dozens more North Korean vessels. With Kim apparently ready to talk, Beijing’s willingness to keep squeezing is doubtful, Town says.
“Since this is what the Trump administration said it wanted, if the U.S. does not take advantage, there will be a lot more international opposition to the pressure campaign,” she said.