TOKYO – When Vice President Pence spoke at the Korean demilitarized zone on Monday, he said that the United States sought to solve the North Korean crisis “through peaceable means and negotiations,” after increasing pressure on the Pyongyang regime. But in an interview with me on Wednesday afternoon, he adopted a harder line: The Trump administration, he said, demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs without any promise of direct negotiations with the United States.
This change in message, if translated into a firm policy of not negotiating with North Korea, could have huge implications. If the United States is unwilling to negotiate with North Korea, and the regime is unwilling to abandon its nuclear and missile programs based on pressure alone, the prospect of the United States using military action to prevent North Korea from developing the capability to strike the continental United States becomes more likely. Also, the Trump administration could open a gap with its key allies as well as China, who all anticipate an eventual return to something akin to the previous multilateral negotiations with Pyongyang.
“I think the path of negotiations with North Korea has been a colossal failure now for more than 25 years,” Pence told me. “We believe that through discussions and negotiations among nations apart from North Korea that we may well be able to bring the kind of economic and diplomatic pressure that would result in North Korea finally abandoning its nuclear ambitions and its ballistic missile program.”
He pointed to North Korea’s violations of the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration and the violations of the 2005 denuclearization agreement negotiated by the administration of George W. Bush.
“All of those negotiations and discussions failed, miserably,” Pence said. “The time has come for us to take a fresh approach. And the approach President Trump has taken is not engagement with North Korea but renewed and more vigorous engagement with North Korea’s principle economic partner [China].”
Pence acknowledged that if North Korea doesn’t abandon its programs on its own, and the United States is unwilling to negotiate with the regime, military action against the regime may be necessary.
“When the president says all options are on the table, all options are on the table,” said Pence. “We’re trying to make it very clear to people in this part of the world that we are going to achieve the end of a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — one way or the other.”
Whether Pence’s hardened message will persist as U.S. policy in the long run remains to be seen. In several interviews and speeches this week, Pence has described the Trump administration’s North Korea strategy as a clean break from the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience.” In fact, there are some similarities. Like Trump, Obama sought Chinese help to place pressure on North Korea to make concessions.
But the new strategy Pence described does break from Obama’s in two key respects. First, the Trump administration is not seeking concessions as a means to return to negotiations, as Obama did. Per Pence’s explanation, the new administration wants North Korea to give up its programs in their entirety without direct talks of any kind.
Also, according to Pence, Trump is directly engaging the Chinese leadership on the issue in a manner Obama never did, and there is some evidence that the Chinese government is responding.
This new stance Pence described, if it becomes formal U.S. government policy, not only breaks from decades of Washington orthodoxy and conventional wisdom; it also may place the United States in a different position than its key Asian allies.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sitting next to Pence at his official residence Tuesday, said that while Tokyo agrees new pressure on North Korea is needed and that there should not be dialogue for dialogue’s sake, “Japan also places paramount importance on the need to seek a diplomatic effort to achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”
South Korean leaders expressed strong support for Pence’s approach in meetings this week in Seoul. But the South Korean people are choosing a new president next month and there’s a high likelihood the incoming government in Seoul will seek engagement and diplomacy with Pyongyang that would run counter to the strategy Pence is articulating.
There has been much discussion in Washington about Pence’s short visit to the demilitarized zone, where he stood outside the Freedom House on the South Korean side of the border and stared into North Korea. Pence wasn’t supposed to walk outside, according to the schedule, but he decided in the moment he wanted to send a message directly to the North Koreans.
“I thought it was important that we went outside,” he said. “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.”
I asked the vice president what he was thinking at that moment. Pence paused, collected his thoughts and then told me the story of when he was a 19-year-old traveler in Germany in 1978. He visited Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall and looked across to communist East Germany to see a country that had never recovered from the devastation of war, full of people who couldn’t enjoy basic rights.
“I’d always believed I’d walked from freedom into tyranny. And I hadn’t felt that way until I stood outside the Freedom House,” he said. “Just looking across [into North Korea], hearing the propaganda blaring, seeing the guards in the towers, it gave me the same feeling I had in 1978.”
I asked, if the United States successfully helped liberate East Germany from the oppression of communism then, couldn’t or shouldn’t the United States help liberate North Korea now?
Pence replied: “Well, I think that’s a discussion for another time.”