Is North Korea’s offer to halt nuclear and missile tests too good to be true?
A senior Trump administration official referenced North Korea’s ‘27-year history of them breaking every agreement they have ever made’
US President Donald Trump appears to have got what he wanted from North Korea: a willingness to suspend nuclear testing and a promise to put its entire arsenal of atomic weapons on the negotiating table.
But is it too good to be true?
After a year of threatening “fire and fury” and ridiculing North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un, Trump is now touting diplomatic progress between the rival Koreas.
He even says he thinks North Korea, under intense sanctions pressure, is “sincere” in wanting an end to the nuclear stand-off.
Other US officials voiced greater scepticism Tuesday, reflecting the mammoth questions about North Korea’s intentions.
The biggest one of all, perhaps: why would the isolated nation suddenly change tack after coming so close to achieving its decades-long goal of nuclear weapons that could threaten to hit anywhere in the United States and – in Kim’s view – guarantee the survival of his totalitarian government.
“Developments on the Korean Peninsula can often move with head-spinning speed,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.
“We seem to be in such a period now.”
Trump had his own version, including the Winter Olympics and himself, of the tick-tock leading to Tuesday’s dramatic diplomatic developments in Pyongyang.
He contended the lead-up to the South Korean-hosted Games “was not going well” until North Korea “came in out of the blue” and decided to participate.
That made the Olympics “very successful,” according to Trump, who said South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited the United States for having “a lot to do with that, if not everything”.
Later, Trump was asked at a news conference what he thought had made North Koreans open to talks. “Me,” he joked, before crediting US-led sanctions that, with China’s help, are punishing North Korea’s economy.
It was hard for Trump not to relish the moment after being accused so often over his first year in office of taking the world closer to a nuclear confrontation than at any point since the cold war.
The initial readout from the South Korean talks with Kim seemed to exceed all expectations.
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s presidential national security director, said North Korea was willing to discuss its nuclear disarmament and halt weapons tests if the two countries enter a negotiation.
Those are precisely the types of concessions Washington has been seeking to start a diplomatic process with the reclusive socialist state.
In exchange for their commitments, Chung said, the North Koreans want an end to military threats and a credible security guarantee.
North Korea didn’t confirm the details, and top US officials eyed the news more warily than Trump.
“Maybe this is a breakthrough. I seriously doubt it,” the president’s intelligence chief, Dan Coats, told a Senate hearing.
A senior Trump administration official, who briefed reporters on the developments on condition he not be quoted by name, referenced North Korea’s “27-year history of them breaking every agreement they have ever made.”
The official said the United States is “open-minded and we look forward to hearing more, but the North Koreans have earned our scepticism.”
China also cautiously welcomed the agreement by North and South Korea to hold a historic summit, urging both sides to “seize the current opportunity” to promote the denuclearisation of the peninsula.
The foreign ministry issued a statement late Tuesday praising the “positive outcomes” of the meeting.
“We hope that the DPRK and the ROK can earnestly implement the relevant consensus and continue with their efforts to advance reconciliation and cooperation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in the statement, using the acronyms of the North and South.
But as Trump never tires of saying, past diplomatic efforts with North Korea all have failed.
Although an aid-for-disarmament deal in 1994 shut down North Korea’s production of plutonium for bombs for nearly a decade, it collapsed when the US accused the North of running a clandestine uranium programme instead.
The latest attempt at dialogue unravelled much more rapidly in 2012, when North Korea upended a nuclear freeze-for-food aid agreement by launching a rocket into space in defiance of the United Nations.
Since then, the North has risked the last remnants of international goodwill with its work on a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the US mainland.
A series of tests in the past year appeared to take North Korea to the brink of such capability, even as the country suffered one round of economic sanctions after another.
Whatever Kim’s motivation, Trump now faces a new set of diplomatic challenges.
In raising the pressure on North Korea, Trump has shocked the world with his seemingly throwaway insults of Kim, who has responded in kind.
The tit-for-tat sparked fears of the two nations stumbling into a sequel of the devastating 1950-53 Korean war, which ended without a peace treaty.
If the enemies can get to talks, Trump will have to weigh his own concessions to shepherd the process to an agreement.
That could mean delaying or altering military drills with South Korea, which the North sees as rehearsals for invasion. Another question will be whether to ease or at least hold off on new sanctions that would risk driving North Korea away from negotiations.
“If Pyongyang demands sanctions relief as a price for coming to the table, then it will fail. The US won’t pay just for talks to start,” Fitzpatrick said.
But Trump may have to show flexibility in some other capacity.
Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s top-ranking Democrat, urged Trump to use diplomacy to test Kim’s seriousness about disarming, or to see if he is just seeking to create a wedge between the US and its South Korean ally.
“As Churchill once famously said, ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,’” Schiff said.
History of failure: efforts to negotiate North Korean disarmament
2003-2009: six-party talks
In January 2003, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong-un, announces Pyongyang will withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty it had agreed to in 1985. Three months later North Korea announces it has a nuclear weapon.
In hopes of finding a peaceful resolution to the North’s nuclear ambitions, six-party talks begin in Beijing between North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan.
In 2004-05, as the six-nation talks are held intermittently, North Korea continues missile testing. As would become a pattern, Pyongyang offers to curtail its work in exchange for aid while also citing concerns about hostile action from the United States.
With the talks in abeyance in 2006, the North steps up its missile testing and accuses the United States of being a nuclear menace, drawing a warning from Bush.
The sixth round of the talks open in February 2007 and North Korea promises to shut its nuclear reactor in exchange for fuel oil. It later demands the United States release US$25 million in frozen funds, which it gets in June, clearing the way for another round of talks a month later.
A North Korean pledge to disclose all its nuclear activities by the end of the year goes unfulfilled.
In May 2008, North Korea demands the United States remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and Washington complies in October, prompting the North to resume tearing down its Yongbyon nuclear plant.
In 2009, the United Nations Security Council responds to a North Korean missile test by threatening to increase sanctions and Pyongyang, which had balked at verification efforts, says it will no longer participate in the six-party talks.
1994-2002: North Korea-US talks under Clinton, Bush
In 1994, North Korea and the United States, under President Bill Clinton, sign an “agreed framework” with the goal of freezing and eventually discontinuing Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
In exchange, North Korea has the possibility of normalised relations, fuel oil and help building light-water nuclear reactors.
North Korea’s production and sale of missiles become an issue. Talks begin with the United States pushing the North to curtail the missile business, while Pyongyang demands financial compensation for lost income. In 1998 sanctions are imposed on the North for sending missile technology and parts to Pakistan.
Despite several rounds of talks, no firm agreement is reached on missiles although a US State Department official will say they were “tantalisingly close” in the final stage of the Clinton administration.
When Bush becomes president in 2001, Pyongyang detects a more hostile attitude and US sanctions are imposed on a North Korean company for missile-related transfers to Iran, according to the Arms Control Association.
Relations are frayed further in 2002 when Bush labels North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as part of an “axis of evil” sponsoring terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons.
The agreed framework breaks down in December 2002 as the United States determines North Korea has been secretly pursuing nuclear weapons and Pyongyang says it has a right to them for defensive purposes. The North also accuses the United States of delaying promised deliveries of oil and orders international inspectors out of the country while reopening its closed nuclear facilities.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters