The South Korean government on Tuesday announced an apparent diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea: agreement by the government of Kim Jong Un to discuss dismantlement of its nuclear program with the United States, and to suspend further warhead and missile tests while talks continue.
If confirmed by the Pyongyang regime, the shift of position would mark a success for the Trump administration’s policy of applying “maximum pressure” to North Korea and open the possibility of a needed reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The question is whether President Donald Trump is prepared to capitalize on the opportunity.
Trump greeted the South Korean announcement appropriately: positively, but with caution. He spoke of “possible progress” while saying the United States “is ready to go hard in either direction.” The surprising announcement by the dovish South Korean government of Moon Jae-in still must be vetted; the Kim regime has not publicly confirmed what would be a reversal of its refusal to discuss its nuclear program, a position it reiterated as recently as last Saturday.
If North Korea is indeed ready to talk, most likely its aims are short-term and tactical: to win an easing of international sanctions and renewed economic concessions from South Korea, or to drive a wedge between the allies. In past rounds of negotiations, beginning in 2005, Pyongyang promised steps toward denuclearization, then reneged once it had obtained economic relief. Remarkably, Kim reportedly accepted in talks with a South Korean delegation over the weekend that upcoming U.S.-South Korean military exercises would go forward. But most analysts believe the regime’s ultimate aim is to force a U.S. withdrawal from South Korea.
The reported offer nevertheless provides an opening that Trump should seek to exploit. It indicates that the tough new sanctions the administration succeeded in pushing through the U.N. Security Council, and that it applied on its own, have put real pressure on the regime. Even if talks led only to a sustained suspension of what has been an unprecedented sequence of North Korean nuclear and missile tests - which have brought the regime to the brink of deploying a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States - that would be progress. For the United States, the challenge would be achieving that more stable status quo without prematurely relieving pressure on the regime.
It’s not clear whether the Trump administration is ready for this diplomatic challenge. Its expectations for talks, at least as publicly expressed, are unrealistic: It’s unlikely the Kim regime will ever agree to fully denuclearize, or even to take the verifiable steps toward denuclearization that the administration has demanded.
It doesn’t help that Trump does not have a Korea team in place: no ambassador to South Korea; no confirmed State Department assistant secretary in the region; no special envoy.
A good first step in response to Tuesday’s developments would be for Trump to fill those jobs with seasoned experts. Then he should set them to work devising a serious and pragmatic strategy for engaging with the Kim regime - without sacrificing, for now, “maximum pressure.”