The temporary thaw in tensions with North Korea during the Olympics has been extended for at least six weeks. With a summit meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un planned for late April, and an offer of U.S.-North Korea talks on the table, there is now a genuine opportunity for progress.
But if it feels like the North Korea issue has been a rollercoaster ride over the last year, buckle up. We are now entering a truly unstable, unpredictable and dangerous period.
For months, all sides have been angling for their own goals. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has focused on “maximum pressure” by increasing sanctions on North Korea. North Korea has raced to prove the strength of its nuclear and missile capabilities, and then reached out to South Korea for talks in a likely attempt to reduce the economic pressure and divide South Korea from its ally the United States. Moon – already inclined towards engagement with the North – tried for a while to present a united front with the United States, but when presented with the offer for talks, he jumped at it despite U.S. skepticism of diplomacy.
Regardless of how one analyzes these events and what produced the diplomatic opening, this week’s news is a significant step forward. According to South Korea, North Korea has agreed to: a summit between the leaders of the two Koreas in late April; a hotline between Korean leaders; support for denuclearization if there is no threat to the North and its security is guaranteed; support for U.S.-North Korea talks that would include denuclearization and the normalization of relations; and no nuclear or missile tests while dialogue is ongoing. None of this indicates a real shift in North Korea’s position – rather, this should be considered North Korea’s opening negotiating stance.
The United States must now pursue high-level diplomacy with North Korea. But assuming that happens, just getting to the table is actually the easy part. What comes next is the real challenge.
First, Trump has no choice but to talk with North Korea. While the United States has basically been dragged kicking and screaming to this position by the two Koreas, refusing this overture would cause an even greater rift between Washington and Seoul, make the United States look like the party refusing to reduce tensions, and potentially sap global support for the economic pressure campaign – all of which would benefit North Korea.
Cartoons on North Korea
Second, the top immediate priority is to avoid allowing the talks to further divide Washington and Seoul. It’s no secret that Moon and Trump do not have a good relationship, and that the South Korean government is deeply concerned about its treatment by Trump. This lack of trust between allies is no small part of the reason that South Korea has pushed ahead with its own talks with North Korea, despite mixed signals from the U.S. about diplomacy. During negotiations, Kim will attempt to get as much as possible from South Korea, and have South Korea pull the United States along in making concessions. The United States and South Korea must be on the same page, or talks will have no chance.
Third, any progress will be slow, difficult and hard to decipher. Early progress in talks could seem small: a schedule for meetings that actually take place; agreement on a wide-ranging agenda; family reunions between the two Koreas; resumption of searches for the remains of U.S. service-members from the Korean War in North Korea; humanitarian aid. Movement on bigger issues – including nuclear and missile programs – would come in bite size increments before real advances are possible.
Fourth, a breakdown in talks could usher in a much more dangerous phase with North Korea. The Trump administration would point to the failure of talks to make the case that diplomacy can’t work with North Korea and that preventive military options are the only way to stop North Korea. North Korea would once again start provocations like missile and nuclear testing, and the escalation cycle would heat up again. For this reason, it is crucial that expectations for this round of diplomacy remain pragmatic.
As this new phase begins, it is important to remember what has not changed: The United States and South Korea want denuclearization, which North Korea is unlikely to do; and North Korea wants the United States to leave the Korean peninsula, which the United States will not do. A key to success will be for both sides to allow the other to maintain these fictions, while making progress on smaller issues first.
To maximize the chances of progress, the United States and South Korea must coordinate positions and seize the initiative in the talks rather than merely parrying North Korean proposals. If successful, initial talks could reduce tensions, establish a more stable situation on the peninsula, take confidence building measures that could open up the path to more progress, and gather intelligence on North Korea’s demands. This could be the beginning of a more stable strategy of deterrence and containment of North Korea that includes dialogue and keeps open the possibility of more progress down the road.
While the United States must be skeptical about what talks can yield, there is much to gain from what would be the first set of genuine negotiations since Kim took over North Korea. As former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell said of his successful efforts to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland: “I had 700 days of ‘no’ … and one ‘yes.'”