Amid these tensions came an opening: In his New Year’s Day speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while warning that “the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons,” also offered the possibility of talks with South Korea—with an eye on next month’s Winter Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae In, who was elected last year on a promise to repair relations with the North, welcomed the remarks. It was, critics said, part of a classic North Korean strategy of trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.
“The real question, I think, is how much do we have to worry about that,” Snyder said. “Of course, the North Koreans are going to try to divide the U.S. and South Korea. That’s always been part of their playbook. ... [But] it’s going to be challenging for the North Koreans to be able to pull that off.”
Still, one hurdle remained for talks: the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercises that were scheduled to fall in the middle of the February 9-25 games. But on Friday, the two countries agreed to postpone the drills until April, well after the games end. Snyder said North Korea would likely seek a postponement of the joint drills at least until September, which is when it marks the 70th anniversary of its founding.
“I imagine that the North Koreans will make a pass at trying to push the exercises back further and the South Koreans will also want to talk about North Korean missile and nuclear testing,” Snyder said.
This is the essence of the so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal put forth by North Korea and China; that is, Pyongyang freezes its testing and the U.S. and South Korea freeze their joint exercises. The U.S. has previously dismissed this proposal.
Snyder said that there could be one other area of direct or indirect conversation between the two Koreas: the opening of a dialogue channel with the United States. It’s unclear what the U.S. position on this is. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had previously appeared open to unconditional talks with the North, but was quickly reined in by the White House. But on Sunday, the president appeared to hew close to Tillerson’s position.
“Depending on which official or which statement you draw from the Trump administration, that [talks with the U.S.] is either a plausible prospect or completely unbelievable,” Snyder said. “But I think the South Koreans would probe that in any event because they have a direct interest in promoting tension-easing, and a big part of that is related to the U.S.-[North Korea] situation.”
The problem with the Trump administration’s mixed messaging, Snyder said, is it “extends across the entire range of possibilities” in U.S.-North Korea relations: “So you see how it’s like a pendulum going back and forth between war and talks.” Trump, he said, “really flattens the probability curve with respect to potential outcomes with North Korea.” Traditionally, he said, “we’re used to a parabola where muddling through is the most likely scenario.”