BY: ANDY LAUB
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un shocked the world on Tuesday when he announced that North Korea was willing to restart talks directly with the United States and was willing to give up his nuclear weapons program in return for removal of the security threat against the DPRK. The remarks came from Kim following a first-ever meeting with top South Korean security officials, who gained rare access to prestigious Workers Party Headquarters where Kim maintains an office; the officials are due in Washington next week to brief the Trump administration on the meeting and a possible path forward. Mr. Kim also proposed an inter-Korean summit at the neutral border town Panmunjom along the Demilitarized Zone. Among Mr. Kim’s offers was to completely freeze all nuclear and missile testing as diplomatic talks progressed. This is a complete turnaround from the North’s bellicose rhetoric of the past that insisted on holding on to its nuclear weapons as a survival insurance policy. The change in tone from the North follows a successful bout of Olympic diplomacy. The South Korean President allowed for North Korean athletes to compete and host a North Korean delegation led by Kim Jong-Un’s sister Kim Yo-Jong, who met with President Moon at Blue House, where she handed him the personal invitation from her brother to meet. Ever since that moment President Moon, who favors a diplomatic approach, has worked hard to help both North Korea and the United States hit the reset button and take a new approach that would make the conditions for diplomacy more amenable. President Moon deserves a lot of credit for orchestrating the Olympics so well, standing strong on his principles and working hard in his efforts to bring both his ally, the United States, and their common adversary, North Korea, together for potential talks. But the most surprising event came with President Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s invitation for talks.
Some have suggested U.S President Donald Trump deserves credit for the diplomatic shift in North Korea’s stance, for his policy of “maximum pressure” and continued sanctions. They are wrong. Since being sworn in one year ago, President Trump’s North Korea strategy has been a disaster. He has engaged in personal insults against Kim Jong-Un referring to him as “little rocket man”; in his UN General Assembly speech he went so far as to threaten to “totally destroy North Korea.” Meanwhile, under continued sanctions, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has seen vast improvements. The Trump administration also bungled an opportunity to extend a diplomatic olive branch to North Korea at the Olympics, which is what led to this potential breakthrough. “Sending cheerleaders to Pyeongchang was a sign of desperation, not national pride,” U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a completely ignorant and undiplomatic statement. Vice President Mike Pence did everything he could to avoid as much as making any eye contact with Kim Yo-Jong, who was sitting right behind him during the opening ceremony. Furthermore, the Vice President insulted our ally and host President Moon by not attending the opening dinner out of fear of running into North Korean officials, refusing to stand or clap for the inter-Korean team at the opening ceremony. Upon returning to Washington, Pence changed course saying “if they want to talk we will talk,” referring to North Korea. Later at the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference (CPAC), Pence bragged about how he stood up the dictator’s family at the Olympics by not engaging with Ms. Kim. The Trump foreign policy on North Korea has been all over the place begging the question, is it truly ready to engage in diplomacy seriously? Mr. Trump said it was very positive reacting to North Korea’s opening and has expressed willingness for the United States to engage as long disarmament remains the primary objective. Another problem the Trump administration has is his hollowing out of the State Department. There are no top diplomats in the Northeast Asia region capable of handling such high-level talks; currently there is no Ambassador to South Korea. Victor Cha’s nomination was withdrawn after he expressed disagreements with the Trump administration’s “bloody nose” strategy of taking a preemptive strike on North Korea; Ambassador Joseph Yun, the State Departments envoy on North Korea, retired last week.
Many are rightfully skeptical of what diplomacy with North Korea will actually accomplish. We have seen this movie before with the 1994 Agreed Framework and failed six-party talks during the Bush administration. However, that doesn’t mean that the administration should not try. Knowing that negotiations with the North Koreans will always be tough, the President should prove his seriousness by appointing a special envoy with expertise in the region to oversee any and all potential talks. While Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-Un is a strong one, he will need to have the backing and support of DPRK experts, who can engage in tough, long negotiations after the initial meeting. The United States should also reciprocate North Korea’s good will gesture of freezing its nuclear and missile tests by suspending the military drills with South Korea scheduled for April and avoid any new sanctions while this diplomatic window is open. Diplomatic openings with North Korea are rare; President Moon deserves credit for making it possible and the ball is now in Donald Trump’s court. He would be wise to use this opening along with our South Korean allies to work with North Korea and identify specific issues that need to be ironed out for long-term peace and stability in Northeast Asia. The talks may not succeed, but we cannot know without trying.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.