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North Korea says it’s ready to negotiate with the US. But don’t get too excited yet.

The US and North Korea have been down the diplomatic route before — to no avail.

South Korean Envoy Departs For North To Discuss Resumption Of Dialogue
In this handout image provided by the South Korean Presidential Blue House, Chung Eui-Yong (R), head of the presidential National Security Office, shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting on March 5, 2018, in Pyongyang.
South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images

After years of building up nuclear and long-range missiles that target American cities, North Korea may be ready to strike a deal to give them up.

On Tuesday, South Korean officials who met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday said he’d told them that Pyongyang was open to discussions with Washington over the future of its nuclear and missile programs. Should talks take place, North Korea wouldn’t carry out provocative new military tests.

“The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” according to a statement from the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “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.”

North Korea has yet to confirm the South Korean account, but the potential diplomatic overture — if true — could help the two sides end the nuclear standoff that had raised fears of a cataclysmic war on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has long said it wants a strong nuclear program to defend against a possible invasion from the United States, and it’s spent decades resisting international pressure — including harsh sanctions — to give up its weapons. The Trump administration has ramped up the US-led campaign to cripple North Korea’s economy, which may be why Pyongyang used the 2018 Winter Olympics to open a diplomatic channel with South Korea and express a desire to speak with the US.

That led South Korean diplomats to spend two days in Pyongyang to meet with Kim for the first time since he took over in 2011. It appears both sides agreed to hold a summit between Kim and Moon in Pyongyang, which would be the first time a South Korean president entered North Korea since 2007. In the meantime, the two Koreas will establish a hotline so Kim and Moon can speak to each other directly.

President Donald Trump, who has vacillated between military threats and diplomatic overtures toward North Korea, tweeted that “for the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned.”

“May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!” he tweeted, apparently alluding to a military option should negotiations fail.

Vice President Mike Pence tried to hold secret talks with North Korean officials during the Olympics in February, but they canceled hours before a planned meeting. The day after the botched face-to-face, Pence still expressed a desire for a chat with North Korea — even though the US would still punish Pyongyang for threatening America and its allies.

“[N]o pressure comes off until they [North Korea] are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence said in the February 11 interview with Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. “The maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

The question now is if the Trump administration can not only get North Korea to the negotiating table but also get it to curb its weapons program. Experts tell me not to expect too much just yet — in part because of Trump himself.

“Trump approaches negotiating as a zero-sum game and would want to humiliate North Korea as part of getting to a settlement,” Mieke Eoyang, a national security expert at the nonpartisan Third Way think tank, told me. “That attitude is not likely to yield a good outcome for anyone.”

Why diplomacy with North Korea is so hard

High-level talks with North Korea are difficult, experts tell me, because both sides say they won’t budge from key policy positions. North Korea wants America to stop its military drills with South Korea, but those exercises are likely to restart before April. Holding those exercises is one of the things that keeps the US-South Korea alliance intact, which is partially why the North wants to see them come to a close.

North Korea has also historically been a very tough country to negotiate with, in large part because it routinely breaks the deals it agrees to. The US and other countries have been trying to come to a diplomatic, negotiated agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program since 1985.

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 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 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. Joseph DeTrani, who led those negotiations from the American side, told me today’s diplomatic outreach was “a positive development” and that it reminds him of the 2005 agreement.

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.

That’s where we are today: a diplomatic stalemate with no real end in sight. Worse, it’s more than likely this opening “could easily be derailed if the North tests something,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale University, told me on February 12, “or, from Pyongyang’s perspective, probably if we resume military exercises.”

The Trump administration, meanwhile, talks both of diplomacy and of war.

Last December, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US was “ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”

The problem is that Trump himself has been so inconsistent on the issue. 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 consider ending its nuclear program.

And in February, Trump told South Korea’s president that he’d chat with Kim “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances.” Trump also approved Pence’s potential meeting with North Korean officials. But overall, it’s clear that he remains skeptical of diplomatic talks with North Korea — and many experts say he’s right not to expect a deal.

“Real denuclearization remains a very distant hope,” Adam Mount, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told me.

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