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.