But R.C. Hammond, who served as senior adviser to Tillerson for public affairs until last December, insists this did not indicate divisions within the administration on North Korea policy. The seeming contradictions in Washington’s rhetoric in the summer and fall of 2017, he said, were an attempt to “tune the radio” with North Korea, sending different signals to see how the North Koreans would respond. (Pyongyang, for example, responded to Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” by threatening Guam.)
In any case, North Korea may now be sending a new kind of signal. Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said pressure on North Korea had helped. “Many people didn’t think this day would come,” she said, adding that the U.S. would confer with South Korean officials about the details of the meeting in North Korea. Trump himself sounded cautious about the development, welcoming it but adding that North Korea’s would be dealt with one way or the other. “We cannot let that situation fester,” he said. “We cannot let it happen.” He credited “the sanctions … and what we’re doing” as a factor in North Korea’s apparent offer.
So even Trump has not given his own tough talk credit for Tuesday’s seeming breakthrough. But those who study North Korea and proliferation were divided on just how successful Trump’s approach as a whole—which has also included tightening sanctions and persuading North Korea’s allies, including China, to increase pressure on the country—has been in facilitating the offer of denuclearization talks.
Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said she’d be “very cautious” in giving the administration too much credit. “If you look at what the North Koreans have been saying, they have made it clear that they were willing to come to the table when they felt they were able to deter an attack from the United States,” she said. “Well, now they feel that they can do that.”
This, she suggested, was less about what’s happening in Washington than what’s been happening in North Korea. DiMaggio, who has visited North Korea several times, pointed out that the North Koreans said earlier this year that they have, in Kim’s words, perfected “the national nuclear forces.” “So if [talks with the U.S.] were to move forward, they would be coming to the table as a country that possesses nuclear weapons,” she said. “That’s a major difference. And I think that maybe that's given the confidence to initiate a return to talks now.”
According to an unofficial translation of the South Korean remarks, the North also agreed to a summit meeting with the South Koreans in late April, and to establish a hotline between the North and South Korean heads of state. Additionally, according to the translation, the North “expressed its willingness to begin earnest negotiations with the U.S. to discuss denuclearization issues and normalize North Korea-U.S. relations” and promised not to “resume strategic provocations such as additional nuclear tests or ballistic missile tests while the dialogue continues.”