Discerning the Trump administration's current policy on North Korea takes some work. The commander in chief has spoken provocatively in recent weeks, warning that North Korea faces “fire and fury” if makes future threats, and later adding that such a threat may not have been “tough enough.”
Yet for all the bluster, the Trump administration doesn't seem to be preparing for war. Instead, it appears to be charting a fairly logical course — using sanctions and threats of military action to contain North Korea while keeping open the possibility of direct talks. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Monday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote that “the U.S. is willing to negotiate with Pyongyang” and said that denuclearization was their aim, not regime change.
When Trump was elected, there was cautious optimism among North Korea watchers that he might be willing to negotiate with Kim Jong Un. After years of “strategic patience” under President Barack Obama, Washington would now have a self-described dealmaker in charge of North Korean relations.
Trump himself played up the idea: On the campaign trail, he said he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader over a hamburger. Since taking office, he has offered more hints he'd talk to “smart cookie” Kim; even amid his recent threats, Trump has said that “nobody loves a peaceful solution more than President Trump.”
Behind the scenes, there has been some action. “Track II” discussions between private individuals — the Americans are usually former officials, while North Korea sends current ones — have continued to take place. Although they are not a substitute for state-to-state talks, the discussions are useful for understanding what would be required for more formal talks.
It was on the sidelines of one of these talks that Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, was able to contact officials about the fate of several U.S. citizens being held by Pyongyang, which eventually led to the release of American student Otto Warmbier. This weekend, the Associated Press reported there had been further talks through what is known as the “New York channel,” a long running back-channel that tends to use United Nations offices.
Unfortunately, the talks have made limited progress. Americans involved in recent Track II talks say that North Korea balks at Washington's preconditions for official talks, including the release of more U.S. citizens in the country. Likewise, demands that the United States call off joint military exercises with South Korea are a sticking point for Washington. The Washington Post's Josh Rogin reported that a high-level meeting between officials in New York in July was canceled because the two sides could not agree on the terms of the discussion.
The biggest issue may be North Korea's nuclear weapons themselves. Even as North Korea has made remarkable technological leaps in its nuclear and missile programs this year, the United States has insisted that Pyongyang must give up its weapons. During Track II talks, North Korean officials have said that they need these weapons as a deterrent and that they would not agree to even discuss denuclearization.
Some experts think there's actually wiggle room. Joel Wit, a former U.S. government negotiator now with the U.S.-Korea Institute, says a statement by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho during the recent ASEAN Regional Forum was more ambiguous on the subject of nuclear weapons than was widely reported. Others suggest talks could leave aside the issue of nuclear weapons for the time being and focus on starting a dialogue.
“There's a great debate about whether the North would ever give up their nuclear weapons,” said Robert Gallucci, another former negotiator. “Well, we'll never know if we don't get into a negotiation.”
But even proponents of talks admit it will be a hard slog — and the problems couldn't all be blamed on North Korea. Even if Trump were to propose some kind of negotiations with North Korea and North Korea agreed, Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution wrote this week, gaining support for any kind of interim deal in Congress probably would be difficult. Many lawmakers still remember how the United States' 1994 nuclear deal with North Korea collapsed after accusations that Pyongyang was cheating. Even the Obama-era policy of strategic patience was born out of a belief that North Korea only used talks to gain concessions and never really gave up anything.
Among former negotiators, there are mixed feelings. Although many would like to see a return to the era of talks and dialogue, others suggest Pyongyang's ultimate goal is reunification and domination of South Korea rather than peaceful coexistence. Chris Hill, an assistant secretary of state for East Asia under President George W. Bush, warned in June against concessions: “North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons is rooted more in aggression than pragmatism,” he wrote.
“Western soft-liners keep saying the U.S. must finally negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang,” B.R. Myers, an academic who studies North Korean propaganda, said to Slate this year. “These people show no awareness of what such a treaty would have to entail.”
In the end, things largely rest on the shoulders of the 33-year-old Kim. Exactly what he wants from the United States is ultimately unclear. Although he makes no bones about his pursuit of nuclear weapons, he has also sought to bring some prosperity back to his poor and isolated country. The prospect of further economic punishment may sway him.
But any deal would require commitment from the other side, too, and it's unclear whether Trump favors diplomacy over military action. Officials have told the Wall Street Journal that they are still working to convince Trump that a preemptive military strike isn't his best option. So much, it seems, for the “art of the deal.”