The prospect of US engagement with North Korea may not budge Pyongyang but it keeps the US and South Korea in sync, writes Mark Fitzpatrick.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas

After being overshadowed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister in the opening of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US Vice President Mike Pence earned the equivalent of a diplomatic medal when they met to coordinate moves toward the North. The Republic of Korea (ROK) president reportedly persuaded the US to agree to exploratory talks with North Korea without preconditions. In turn, Pence was reassured that Moon would not relax sanctions in the absence of North Korean meaningful steps toward denuclearisation. In other words, pressure and diplomacy will be applied simultaneously, not sequentially.

It was already supposed to have been that way. After a policy review at the beginning of the Trump administration, the White House in April 2017 revealed a strategy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement’. The pressure mounted in multiple forms – from economic sanctions that continue to tighten, to thinly veiled threats of military strikes – but there has been precious little engagement; high-level talks were conditioned on Pyongyang accepting the goal of denuclearisation. This may now change.

Returning home from the games, where he sternly avoided any contact with the North Korea delegation that was stealing the show, Pence told Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin that the US was ready to talk to North Korea without preconditions. State Department envoy for North Korea Joseph Yun had been promoting such ‘talks about talks’, as had his boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But until now the White House had not been on board. To the contrary, President Donald Trump infamously denigrated diplomatic efforts by tweeting in October that Tillerson was ‘wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man’. 

An apparent key to the change of heart was that Pence heard directly from Moon that Seoul will not provide Pyongyang with any economic or diplomatic benefits for just talking. By reaching agreement on these conditions for engagement with North Korea, Moon and Pence overcame what had been looming as a potential rift in relations. South and North Korea have already restarted long-stalled talks, but the key to removing the nuclear sword that hangs over the Korean Peninsula lies in US diplomacy with the North.

A rift may still be in the offing over the US–ROK joint military exercises that were postponed until April to allow for a peaceful Olympics. In talks with the South, North Korea will demand that the exercises be cancelled altogether. The US is unlikely to agree, but scaling them down could be a fruitful bargaining chip.

North Korea may also succeed in driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington over Kim Jong-un’s invitation to meet Moon in Pyongyang – a proposal delivered in a message by his sister, Kim Yo-jong. Moon replied cautiously, suggesting that conditions be created to make it possible. By those conditions, he meant dialogue between the US and the DPRK.

What next?

It remains to be seen how long the reported change of heart by the White House will last. Trump could end it in any early-morning insulting tweet. The president would be better off continuing to take credit for creating the conditions for North Korea’s Olympics peace initiative. At his behest, Moon publicly credited Trump with pressuring Pyongyang to accepting the South’s request for talks. Notwithstanding the risks of misperception that could still ensue from Trump’s fiery rhetoric, it does appear that North Korea is seeking to reduce the chances of a US strike. An astute Russian observer, former diplomat in Pyongyang Andrei Lankov, similarly credits Trump’s tough stance: ‘the leaks from the White House made a deep impression, and the North Korean government has decided to slow down’.

Lankov now lives in Seoul, where it is difficult to know what North Koreans leaders are thinking. It may be that the pressure from ever-escalating sanctions is having an even bigger impact than the ‘bloody nose’ rhetoric. North Korea has scaled back its own winter military exercises, apparently to conserve fuel in light of sharp UN sanctions on imports of refined petroleum products and crude oil.

After successfully test-launching a large intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-15, in late November, North Korea claimed that it had completed the development of its nuclear deterrent. This is doubtful, given the absence to date of a successful re-entry or an ICBM test launch on a normal trajectory. But claiming completion gives Pyongyang a face-saving reason to stop further tests for the time being.

Apart from a testing pause, there is as yet no sign that North Korea is willing to give up any aspect of its strategic weapons, or accept the denuclearisation goal that was central to negotiated agreements under the Six-Party Talks in 2005 and 2007. A senior UN envoy who visited Pyongyang in early December was told that it was ‘too early’ to enter talks with the US. It is worth testing whether this still holds.

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