After dramatic diplomatic maneuvers by South Korea and an unexpectedly warm response from North Korea, the United States finds itself in a position that many thought would never come again: planning for a discussion with Kim Jong Un that includes denuclearization.
Yesterday, a delegation of special envoys from Seoul agreed to hold working-level consultations with Pyongyang in late April, establish a hotline between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, discuss denuclearization with the United States, and pause nuclear and missile tests during the dialogue. Moreover: According to one South Korean negotiator, Kim said that he understood that the U.S.-South Korean joint exercises “must resume in April on the same scale as before.” So far, the North has yet to confirm the plans to hold these talks, and has yet to comment directly on the substance of the meeting. But if these terms hold, they would represent a major concession for a regime that has hysterically claimed that these exercises were a prelude to invasion. The Kim regime may have taken a step even beyond the freeze-for-freeze proposal in which joint exercises, as well as nuclear and missile tests, would all be reciprocally frozen. Instead, it seems to have offered a freeze for free.
Most experts doubted that Pyongyang would agree to pause or delay its nuclear and missile-testing schedule. But its stance has consistently been more nuanced than how it has been characterized—as a flat refusal to denuclearize. North Korea, in fact, has always viewed its nuclear program as a response to the threat from the United States, a point it reportedly emphasized again on Tuesday. According to South Korea’s description of yesterday’s meeting, the Kim regime “made clear that there is no reason for them to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed.” It won’t be easy for the Trump administration to provide security assurances to a regime that threatens America’s allies, especially as providing such assurances would conflict with the effort to escalate tensions seemingly in an attempt to gain leverage.