On Friday, North Korea agreed to hold its first official talks with South Korea in more than two years, the latest sign of a very preliminary easing of tension on the peninsula, which until this week seemed to be careening toward catastrophic armed conflict.
The rare diplomatic opening began with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, in which he boasted that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent was now complete and that the launch button is “always on the desk in my office” but also offered talks with the South over sending a delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. On Thursday, after a phone call between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, the two countries agreed to postpone a planned joint military exercise until after the Olympics and Paralympics, which run through March 18. North Korea views the exercises as provocations.
“This is very good news coming out of the peninsula this week,” says Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates nuclear disarmament. “Rescheduling the exercises was a big deal.”
In the United States, the diplomatic overtures have been overshadowed by Trump’s taunting response to Kim’s button remark, but the U.S. president also described the talks—set for next week—as a “good thing” and took credit for them in another tweet, saying, “does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.”
Tong Zhao, a nuclear policy analyst at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, says that international pressure did likely influence the North’s new willingness to talk but disagrees that it was the deciding factor. “The reason why North Korea launched its recent diplomatic overture is primarily because it has made an important technological breakthrough recently,” he says, referring to the recent test of an ICBM that could theoretically reach the East Coast of the United States. “North Korea has obtained a primitive but effective nuclear deterrent capability, so it can afford to not conduct additional ICBM tests. Therefore, it can exercise some self-restraint as a result.”
That means Kim will have no interest in giving up the country’s nuclear deterrent now that North Korea has acquired it. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who is fast defining herself as the most hawkish member of the Trump Cabinet, has said that the U.S. will not take any talks seriously unless Kim is willing to give up his nuclear arsenal, though that’s not a universally held position in the U.S. government. But only one country—South Africa near the end of apartheid—has ever willingly given up nuclear weapons it constructed itself. North Korea, which views its nukes as the best defense against invasion, has no incentive to do so.
So if disarmament is off the table, what can we expect from these talks? “I don’t want to say low expectations, but we should have small-step expectations,” says Katharine H.S. Moon, a professor of Asian Studies at Wellesley College who studies South Korean foreign policy. “We need to encourage both North Korea and South Korea to take baby steps. They’re not going to go for nuclear issues first. They’re going to go for the traditional issues they have worked on.”
These baby steps could include the South’s desire to allow the reunions of families divided by the Korean War. Another could be reopening some the joint North-South industrial ventures that were shuttered in response to the North’s nuclear and missile tests.
North Korea will certainly be looking for ways to end its economic isolation. Kim has described his nuclear program as one half of an overall strategy known as “Byungjin,” or “parallel development,” with economic development being the other half. With the deterrent in place, he may now pivot to development and will likely look to bring back foreign investment, if not to benefit his impoverished population, then at least to enrich his own government.
Professor Moon also notes that the South Korean government is limited in how many concessions it can make, given that it is bound by international sanctions agreements and also faces pressure from many conservative voters who view any cooperation with the North with suspicion. “I doubt that President Moon will be on a highway course to change the dynamics with North Korea,” she says.
All the same, these initial contacts are a welcome lowering of pressure in a very volatile situation. “With tensions so high, there’s a risk that an exchange of tweets and taunts could turn into an exchange of bullets and bombs,” says Cirincione.
If these tentative negotiations last, discussions could eventually turn to the nuclear issue. But what is Kim actually looking for, and what would he be willing to give up?
“North Korea hasn’t made its expectations clear,” says Tong.
“I was in meetings with North Korean officials recently. They always said that the U.S. has to stop its ‘hostile policy’ against North Korea, which is a very vague term.”
The Chinese government has been pushing a concept known as “dual suspension” or “freeze for freeze” under which North Korea would halt its nuclear tests in return for the U.S. and South Korea halting their military exercises. The South Korean government might be open to that eventually, though it could be a tougher sell for the U.S., despite this week’s agreement. Tong notes that the timing of the Olympics was fortuitous, since it “offered the opportunity for the U.S. and South Korea to [delay the exercises] without the appearance of making concessions to North Korea.”
The U.S. is mostly on the sidelines, for now. But eventually the U.S., still formally at war with North Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice, is going to have to be involved in the talks. And despite what Trump has claimed, there is precedent, mainly from Bill Clinton’s administration, of productive U.S.–North Korean nuclear diplomacy.
“We have to get rid of this mythology that nothing has worked,” Cirincione says. “The only thing that has worked is negotiating. When we’ve talked to North Korea, we’ve slowed or even stopped their development of nuclear weapons. It’s when we’ve stopped talking to them that their program has advanced.”
Obviously, though, the differences between the two sides are vast and won’t be bridged easily.
“[Kim] wants to have that peace treaty based on recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power. We want it to be based on North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons,” Cirincione notes. But, he adds, “That’s what diplomacy’s for.”
Professor Moon notes that while much of the coverage of the overture has discussed it in terms of the North trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, the wedge already existed, with President Moon’s government differing sharply with Trump’s bellicose rhetoric. She sees the past week’s events as a sign that “if the U.S. is not reliable as a dialog partner, then other parties will figure out a way to get on with it. It’s not a life-or-death issue for the United States. For the Koreans, it is.”