In South Korea, President Trump abruptly shifted position on negotiations with North Korea, saying he wanted to “make a deal” with the Kim Jong Un regime. If he means it, there may be an opening, because his State Department has been working on a new initiative to break the diplomatic stalemate with Pyongyang, starting with a proposed 60-day freeze in nuclear and missile tests.
“I really believe that it makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and to make a deal that’s good for the people of North Korea and the people of the world,” Trump said in Seoul. “I do see certain movement, yes. But let’s see what happens.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his top North Korea official, Joseph Yun, have a concrete idea of how to get from here to there. Yun told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations on Oct. 30 that if North Korea halted nuclear and missile testing for about 60 days, that would be the signal the United States needs to resume direct dialogue with Pyongyang. Yun’s remarks, which were off the record, were described by two attendees. Yun declined to comment. Administration sources said that Yun’s remarks were consistent with what Tillerson has been saying privately and publicly.
“The best signal that North Korea could give us that they’re prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Tillerson told reporters in August. “We’ve not had an extended period of time where they have not taken some type of provocative action by launching ballistic missiles. So I think that would be the first and strongest signal they could send us is just stop, stop these missile launches.”
The most recent North Korean provocation was the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile Sept. 15, almost two months ago. But administration sources said Yun’s 60-day clock hasn’t started yet because the administration has no information on why the North Koreans haven’t conducted tests recently. The North Koreans must tell the United States that they are starting the freeze before the clock can start.
While they are waiting for that signal, Tillerson and Yun have been enlisting others in support of their plan. Yun traveled to Moscow in September to discuss North Korea with top officials there. Tillerson has conferred with his Russian counterpart as well.
Yun also keeps in touch with the North Korean government. He met with Choe Son Hui, the head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s North America bureau, in Oslo in the spring. He communicates regularly with North Korean officials at the United Nations through what’s known as the “New York channel.”
There are other obstacles that must be overcome before direct dialogue with North Korea can start. In exchange for a testing moratorium, the North Koreans are sure to want a sign of good faith from Washington. China and Russia have proposed that the United States and South Korea halt joint military exercises, but that’s a non-starter. Pyongyang will have to come up with a more reasonable ask.
Then, Tillerson and Yun will have to convince a skeptical White House that “talks about talks” with North Korea are a good move. Trump has often criticized the idea of dialogue with the Kim regime and promised not to get ensnared in what he views as a trap of bribing Pyongyang for deals it later violates.
If talks ever begin, the two sides have little common ground on where they should end up. North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear state. The United States wants North Korea to give up its nukes altogether. The White House will have to be convinced that some middle ground, at least in the interim, is worth negotiating over.
Regardless, Trump’s public endorsement of the idea of talks with North Korea does provide an opening for the diplomats under his charge who are looking to begin that process.
“Nobody is against a diplomatic settlement, it’s just about how we get there,” an administration official said. “There are a lot of questions about this engagement that are still unanswered.”
Trump’s shift in Asia from “fire and fury” to a mix of condemnation and outreach is in part due to his desire to speak to several audiences. Trump wants to express solidarity with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He also needs to show flexibility and a willingness to embrace diplomacy to persuade China and Russia to apply more pressure on the Kim regime.
For Trump, “progress” may mean that the U.S. campaign of pressure and isolation is advancing. But that is just a means to an end. The end goal of any sensible North Korea policy is to “make a deal” and avoid a war.