The United States and North Korea may soon end their silent treatment of one another — which might pave the way for ending the nuclear standoff between the two countries.
According to Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke with the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin on Sunday, the Trump administration is now prepared to chat with North Korean officials whenever they’re ready.
It’s potentially a big deal: The Trump White House has previously signaled it would not talk with North Korea until it agreed beforehand to negotiate the end of its nuclear program. That’s also why Pence’s overture seems odd. Additionally, President Donald Trump time and time again has denigrated the idea of talks with the North — even though many of his top officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have openly advocated for official chats.
The new development comes after Pence spent part of last week in South Korea leading America’s delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. After discussing the issue with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at least twice during his trip, the vice president now says that dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang is a good idea. However, the US will still punish North Korea for threatening America and its allies even if official negotiations take place.
“[N]o pressure comes off until they [North Korea] are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence told Rogin. “The maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
Part of that “pressure campaign” includes imposing harsh sanctions on Kim Jong Un’s regime, and restricting its diplomatic ties with more than 20 countries.
Experts tell me that Pence’s comments don’t indicate a radical shift in the US administration’s stance toward North Korea. “The position Pence just articulated sounds quite a bit like one the administration held over the summer — diplomacy alongside pressure,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale University, said.
So if the Trump administration does take this next step toward dialogue, the question becomes: Will bilateral talks get North Korea to end its nuclear program? It’s difficult to say.
Why talking to North Korea might not work
For months, top Trump officials have said the administration would prefer to settle its tensions with North Korea diplomatically.
“While diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action, it is backed by military options,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Tillerson wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last August. “The US is willing to negotiate with Pyongyang. But given the long record of North Korea’s dishonesty in negotiations and repeated violations of international agreements, it is incumbent upon the regime to signal its desire to negotiate in good faith.”
Last December, Tillerson took attempts at dialogue a step further during a speech at the Atlantic Council think tank about the Trump administration’s first year in office. “We’ve said from the diplomatic side we’re ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” the secretary said. “Can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?”
But Trump has undermined diplomatic outreach to North Korea several times. Just hours after Tillerson’s remarks, the White House abruptly put out a statement saying: “The President’s views on North Korea have not changed.” In other words, the US would not sit down with Pyongyang until it agreed to put ending its nuclear program on the table.
Sometimes Trump changes his tune — last month, he told South Korea’s president that he’d chat with North Korea’s leader “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances.” But overall, the US president remains skeptical of diplomatic talks with North Korea — and there’s at least one reason why.
The US and other countries have been trying to come to a diplomatic, negotiated agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program since 1985, according to the Arms Control Association.
They got really close twice. In 1994, the US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, in which the North agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors and fuel oil from the United States.
But the agreement collapsed in 2002, and by January of 2003, the North had resumed its nuclear program.
Then, in August 2003, the international community launched the so-called “Six Party Talks,” designed to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program through negotiations with five other countries: China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
Two years later, in September 2005, it looked like the talks might work — North Korea formally agreed to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” in exchange for energy assistance from the other countries.
Yet in 2009, amid disagreements over technical details related to verification, North Korea walked out on the talks. It said it would never return to the negotiations and maintains that it is no longer bound by their agreements. Pyongyang has been ramping up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs ever since.
Kelsey Davenport, a North Korea expert at the Arms Control Association, told me last September that diplomacy has the best chance of success to get North Korea to curb its nuclear program, but notes that the cost for the US would be high. “That will require the United States to put something on the table that North Korea wants, perhaps a reduction in US-South Korean military exercises,” she said.
Other experts are skeptical that might work. “I’m not holding my breath for Kim Jong Un to make that concession in the near future,” Lindsey Ford, a former Asia security specialist at the Defense Department, told me. “So there’s a real risk that talks could fall apart.”
Ahead of the Olympics, Trump and Moon announced that they would delay annual military exercises originally scheduled to take place during the games. These exercises, which involve simulating operations that both countries might undertake in the event of war with North Korea, anger the North and could have provoked it to do something dangerous in response.
And the brief pause in tensions has led North Korea to extend a historic invitation to Moon to travel to Pyongyang for a summit — which Moon reportedly will accept. If Moon accepts the offer, it would be the first time a South Korean president will enter North Korea since 2007 — and the third time overall.
However, it’s more than likely something will happen after the Olympics that could end this moment of calm. “The negotiations could easily be derailed if the North tests something,” Rapp-Hooper told me, “or, from Pyongyang’s perspective, probably if we resume military exercises.”
And that’s not all. “The real risk is that any one of the parties involved loses patience with diplomacy and fails to see any real rewards from it and the talks fall apart,” Ford told me. North Korea, she continued, is unlikely to find any real benefit from talks. That’s because Pyongyang will probably ask too much of the US and South Korea, such as ending their joint drills. Those exercises, in part, form the backbone of the US-South Korea alliance.
So it’s not guaranteed that more US-North Korea communication will lead to a lasting peace — but it couldn’t hurt, according to Rapp-Hooper. “Diplomacy is still worthwhile if it lowers the risk of miscalculation,” she said.