North Korea’s weekend offer of peace talks over dinner with the first South Korean delegation there in more than a decade seems to be a sincere attempt to open dialogue. It follows other moves like sending his sister Kim Yo-jong to the Olympics and issuing a summit invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
He says he is prepared to denuclearize and halt tests. The hard question is, what follows?
It’s clear sanctions combined with joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises helped get him here. Sanctions are biting. North Korea is more isolated now than they’ve ever been, to include with their key ally, China. The joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea have become that much more intense with the introduction of strategic assets, so those exercises have to be intimidating to Kim and his leadership.
Also, in President Moon Jae in’s administration, you have a liberal government in Seoul that has mentioned their willingness to affect rapprochement with North Korea. So it’s a combination of the sanctions, the joint military exercises, and a Moon government that is very willing to have a dialogue with the North that made a significant impact.
But Kim Jong-un may see himself as negotiating from a position of strength, having demonstrated to his people and to the world in 2017 that his is a nuclear weapons state, having launched more than two-dozen missiles, to include an ICBM that can reach the whole of the United States, and what we believe to have been a hydrogen bomb test of at least over 150 kilotons. He may be telling himself, I now have the deterrent capability that can deter the U.S. or others from threatening my country. So he’s coming to the table feeling more as an equal.
He is so secure, he even told the South Korean delegation that he understood joint exercises with the U.S. had to continue, according to Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, who was part of the delegation that visited Pyongyang. But he said he expected them to be scaled back. Indeed, his goal is to eliminate these military exercises—and even beyond that, his ultimate goal is to get the U.S. military off of the peninsula.
But I think he realizes that the U.S. is not going to walk away from joint military exercises. The U.S. has been similarly realistic in the past, negotiating with North Korea even as they launched missiles and tested nuclear warheads.
So, this is a gradual approach he’s taking, a different tack from what he sees as a position of strength: I’ll talk to you, I’ll talk about denuclearization. But he’s also going to be talking about security assurances, likely beyond us saying we have no intention of violating or invading your country. But the ultimate security assurance would be having normal diplomatic relations with the United States.
One thing is for certain – the U.S. is not likely to agree to withdraw. Our military presence in South Korea is began subsequent to the Korean War, and is a bilateral agreement between the Republic of Korea and the United States. I can tell you from past negotiations—that’s something we would never negotiate with North Korea.
Despite the recent departure of high-level U.S. diplomats focused on this area, we still have plenty of skilled practitioners who could lead exploratory talks – assuming Kim Jong-un was honest in what he said about halting his missile launches and nuclear tests during exploratory talks, and he’s serious about comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of their nuclear weapons programs.
We also have something that’s on the books and can be revisited: the Joint Statement of Sept. 19, 2005, signed by Kim Jong-un’s father, that included all of the things Kim promised or has committed to the visiting South Korean delegation. That could just be taken off the shelf and revisited.
These comments were adapted for print from a conversation with Amb. Joseph DeTrani.