Even as the president got into a button-measuring contest with Kim Jong-un — and petty insults laced with threats of nuclear annihilation bounced back and forth between the two leaders — the White House insisted that direct talks with Pyongyang would do more harm than good. The United States simply could not engage North Korea diplomatically unless the regime announced that it was prepared to discuss denuclearization, and took some action that signaled its sincerity.
North Korea has now met both those conditions. Or, so South Korea says.
Hoping to build on the goodwill established during the Winter Olympic Games, South Korean president Moon Jae-in sent diplomatic envoys to Pyongyang for talks with the Kim regime this week. They came back bearing olive branches.
“The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” the envoys said in a statement Tuesday. “It made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”
“The North expressed its willingness to hold a heartfelt dialogue with the United States on the issues of denuclearization and normalizing relations with the United States,” the statement continued. “It made it clear that while dialogue is continuing, it will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.”
So: According to Seoul, North Korea has put denuclearization on the table — and offered to cease its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, in a demonstration of its sincerity.
As of this writing, the Kim regime has yet to corroborate this statement, and the Trump administration has yet to issue any formal response.
Nonetheless, South Korea plans to pursue to peace talks, with or without the United States. During this week’s talks, Pyongyang and Seoul scheduled a face-to-face summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in for late April. That meeting would be held in Panmunjom, the “truce village” that straddles the border between North and South.
Even if North Korea does confirm its reported offer, there’s plenty of reason for the U.S. to view it skeptically. If Pyongyang were eager to forfeit its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a security guarantee from the United States, such a deal could have been made long ago. On the other hand, North Korea has good reason to take Washington’s offer of a security guarantee with several grains of salt. After all, Muammar Qaddafi took the U.S. up on its “denuclearization for security” deal in 2003 — only to be tortured and killed eight years later by rebels whom the U.S. government had backed. More recently, President Trump’s handling of the Iran nuclear agreement has given Pyongyang good cause to distrust Washington’s word.
Regardless, tense diplomatic talks are surely preferable to nuclear brinksmanship. North Korea is ostensibly ready to at least feign openness to America’s preconditions. Given the absence of a credible military alternative that doesn’t involve hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, it’s hard to see why Washington wouldn’t come to the table.
Then again, it’s also hard to see why the Trump administration still hasn’t bothered to appoint an ambassador to South Korea.