Kim Jong Un Makes America Irrelevant

Seoul wants to try diplomacy with Pyongyang. Where does that leave Washington?

Kim Jong Un greets Chung Eui-yong, head of the presidential National Security Office, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 6, 2018. ( The Presidential Blue House / Yonhap / Reuters)

The news that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has offered to hold talks about getting rid of his nuclear weapons has fueled new hopes that the deadly standoff with North Korea may be easing. So far, only South Korea has said these talks will happen. While it remains to be seen what exactly North Korea has offered to discuss if it does indeed confirm its participation—it’s speculated that sanctions relief in exchange for some technical steps to roll back North Korea’s nuclear efforts will be on the negotiating table—it is already clear that Kim, following his successful Olympic charm offensive, is ready to continue playing peacemaker.

That North Korea could adopt such a posture is only possible because the Trump administration has handled the Korean issue so poorly, driving Seoul into Pyongyang’s waiting arms. Regardless of the cause of this new offer to talk and doubts over the North’s sincerity, the United States needs to take this proposal seriously. Anything less would constitute diplomatic malpractice, and could irreparably harm the already shaky U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Peninsula watchers are already trying to parse the precise language that Kim used in his offer to talk to the United States. His offer to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and begin the process of eliminating his nuclear capability if his regime’s security can be guaranteed by the United States, presented to South Korean envoys at a dinner in Pyongyang, seemed similar to ones made by North Korea in the past. Such offers formed the basis of previous talks and even agreements in 1994, 2005 and 2011, all of which failed to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. In those instances, North Korea was focused on eliminating the threat it perceived from the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea and the U.S.-South Korea relationship’s reliance on nuclear deterrence as the ultimate guarantor of Seoul’s security. When the time comes for real nuclear reversal, North Korea always finds a way or reason to squirm out of old bargains.

Perhaps this new announcement is another bluff to buy time or pit the Americans against the South Koreans. But on the off chance that the offer to talk about eliminating nuclear weapons is real, it’s worth asking whether President Donald Trump can take credit for bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table. The answer is yes, but not for the reason he might think. It is possible that Kim has decided that Trump might just be crazy enough to start a war, leading him to sue for peace. But even more likely is that with Trump having threatened fire and fury and South Korea now more concerned about America trying to start a war with North Korea, that Kim has figured out that he can be the reasonable one even as he continues building his nuclear weapons. This might be enough to convince North Korea to offer talks, but there is no reason to believe that this will be enough to convince it to actually follow through on any denuclearization deal.

The best way to keep the United States and South Korea safe is by maintaining a strong, coordinated alliance. So it’s a source of real concern that Trump’s brash language has so unsettled South Korea, perhaps more than it has unsettled North Korea. Just last month, Moon Chung In, a senior South Korean presidential advisor, told the PBS Newshour that Seoul is  “very much worried about American unilateral military action on North Korea.” The lack of coordination and clarity from the Trump administration about whether and when it will engage North Korea in talks has even led Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, to chart his own engagement plan with the North without full coordination with the United States—unthinkable only a year ago. This growing divide between Washington and Seoul is the opening Pyongyang is, in all likelihood, now looking to exploit by appearing reasonable and ready to engage.

What is new, at least at first blush, is the lack of any conditions from North Korea. Press reports indicate that North Korea is ready to pursue talks with the United States even if sanctions continue and the military exercises between the United States and South Korea scheduled for April proceed as planned. Pyongyang has used past such exercises to either cancel talks or conduct missile tests. However, after having declared the completion of its nuclear development program, Kim Jong Un has apparently decided there is more to be gained by putting the United States on the spot by offering diplomacy than by testing nuclear weapons or missiles.

Under these conditions, there is little for the United States to lose by agreeing to talks with the North. Yes, North Korea can still produce nuclear weapons and missiles even when not testing those systems—but it could do that with or without ongoing talks. If sanctions implementation and military exercises can continue, then refusing to talk is not an option, even from Trump. Should Washington refuse to take what appears to be yes for an answer, it would further alienate its friends in Seoul and make it even easier for Kim to argue it is the United States, not North Korea, that is the root of the South’s security concerns.

This message is not yet resonating with the South Korean population, but after a year of maximum pressure and no real diplomatic engagement by the United States, South Korea is ready to test the proposition of diplomacy with the North. Washington should be too.