Trump’s Olive Branch to North Korea Opens Murky Path to Talks

It’s been 26 days since North Korea launched a missile. 

That’s one day short of the longest stretch that Pyongyang has gone this year without firing off a rocket. The question now is whether this gap — and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s praise of North Korea’s “restraint” — opens the path for talks with Washington.

Tillerson told reporters on Tuesday that North Korea hadn’t carried out “provocative acts” since the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions earlier this month, and said Pyongyang’s temperance might lead to negotiations “in the near future.” Kim Jong Un last tested a missile on July 28.

What happens next is unclear. The two sides could be making initial contact through a secret channel in New York. Other countries in the region may seek to restart six-party talks that collapsed in 2009. Or Kim could simply fire off another missile tomorrow, resetting the clock and raising tensions once again.

North Korea has said it won’t place its nuclear program on the negotiating table unless the U.S. drops its “hostile” policies. Earlier this month, the North Korean leader said he will watch the U.S. a bit more before carrying through with a threat to fire missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam.

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Kim is “starting to respect” the U.S., adding that “maybe, probably not, something positive will come out of it.” The same day, however, the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on businesses and individuals in China and Russia that it said are assisting North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

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Joseph DeTrani, who helped broker a 2005 agreement on North Korea’s nuclear program, said he was “excited” by Tillerson’s statement and hoped it would be received well in Pyongyang. Initial talks could probably be limited to the U.S. and North Korea before opening up to other countries later, DeTrani said.

“In exploratory talks you have to indicate where you want to go and deal with all of the issues that come in between,” DeTrani, a former senior adviser to the U.S. director of national intelligence, said by phone. “Maybe the issue of hostile acts has to be addressed by something like a peace treaty.”

Previous Negotiations

Informal discussions have worked before, leading to trilateral talks between the U.S., North Korea and China in 2003. That laid the foundations for six-party talks that started in August 2003 and involved North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

After those talks collapsed, both sides have declined to talk until the other meets certain conditions. The U.S. wants North Korea to commit to giving up its nuclear weapons, while Kim’s regime wants America to stop threatening it with military action and end joint military exercises with South Korea.

Still, those conditions are vague enough to allow both sides to get back to the negotiating table if they want, according to a South Korean government official who declined to be identified because the discussions are sensitive.

South Korea is unaware of any concrete push for talks, and it’s too early to discuss what North Korea would demand in a negotiation, the official said. Since North Korea opposes restarting six-party talks, South Korea would back the U.S. speaking directly with Kim’s regime as long as the discussions are closely coordinated, the official said.

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Japan would probably also support initial bilateral discussions between the U.S. and North Korea, according to Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. 

Read a QuickTake on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

“Japan’s position is to ask the U.S. for a stronger stance on North Korea, but will not rule out potential talks,” he said.

China is likely to back any dialogue that eases tensions, according to Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University. For months, China’s government has pushed a so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal, in which North Korea would halt nuclear tests while the U.S. stops military exercises.

“I don’t think they will quickly agree on negotiations,” Zhu said of North Korea. “It’s still very hard to predict what Kim Jong Un’s real calculation is.”

North Korea’s most recent prolonged pause in testing was between October last year and February, a period that coincided with Trump’s election win and the impeachment of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The regime last tested a nuclear device in September 2016, the fifth since 2006.

18 Missile Tests

Since Feb. 12, the regime has tested 18 missiles at the rate of two or three times per month. In another day or two, the pause will be the longest in six months.

Whether this is “another lull” remains unclear, according to John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. North Korea’s state media reported on Wednesday that Kim ordered more solid-fuel rocket engines, which would allow the regime to fire missiles with little preparation.

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“Tillerson is smart to try and break the cycle of ignoring them when they don’t do anything,” Delury said. “This shift strengthens the hand of those people in Pyongyang who make the argument that we should deal with the Trump people.”

— With assistance by Kanga Kong, Andy Sharp, and Peter Martin