Opportunities offered by latest North Korean stance should not be ignored
Overtones by Kim Jong-un appear certain to lead to a summit with his counterpart in the South, so Washington must encourage dialogue and not try to derail it
The fiery rhetoric, bluster and threats over North Korea have given way to measured tones and diplomacy. Landmark talks this week between its leader Kim Jong-un and officials from the South after the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics seem certain to lead to a summit with President Moon Jae-in next month. Pyongyang has even said it is willing to discuss denuclearising the Korean peninsula. Tensions have eased, but a lasting peace depends on the United States.
US President Donald Trump, who last August threatened “fire and fury” against Kim over his nuclear and missile provocations, has tempered his rhetoric as a result of the positive tone of the inter-Korean dialogue.
A South Korean envoy will convey Kim’s position, which is yet to be revealed, to Trump’s administration in Washington this week before visiting China and Russia. But, as yet, there is no indication that the US will soften its tough line towards Pyongyang, which hinges on a continued military presence, sanctions and a refusal to negotiate unless the North scraps its nuclear programme.
Proving a desire to keep up the pressure, the US Department of State on Wednesday increased the penalties after determining Pyongyang used the chemical warfare agent VX in the alleged assassination of Kim’s brother in Kuala Lumpur last year.
The North has always denied involvement in the killing. It has also argued that it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against the US and Washington’s ally, the South, which it is still technically at war with; the 1950-53 Korean war ended not with a peace treaty, but a truce.
The more than 23,000 American troops in the South are perceived by the North as a provocation. The diplomatic achievements may be weakened should war games involving the US and South Korea, suspended for the Winter Olympics, go ahead.
Trump should encourage dialogue, not try to derail it. The leaders of the Koreas have not met since 2007 and there is a desire in the region for peace. Scepticism abounds about Kim’s motives, though, with some in the South believing his strategy is to drive a wedge between the alliance with the US.
Caution may be warranted as agreements struck as a result of summits and talks in the past have repeatedly unravelled, with the North ignoring deals and continuing development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
But international sanctions have bitten hard and Kim wants to talk. A summit between the Koreas at the truce village of Panmunjeom is a good start, but the South also has an important role as an intermediary with the US. Pyongyang’s ultimate goal is a peace deal and security guarantees from Washington. Trump should not ignore the opportunities offered by rapprochement.