Over the past year, tensions between North Korea and the United States have increased significantly because of Pyongyang's frequent weapons tests. With fears of a nuclear conflict growing, outside experts have called for direct talks between the two nations to defuse the situation.
There was a major stumbling block, however: a long-standing U.S. insistence on North Korea meeting certain preconditions before any talks could begin. But Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to back away from that position.
“We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk,” Tillerson said at an Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation forum in Washington. “We're ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let's just meet and see — we can talk about the weather if you want.”
The comments appear to indicate a new push for dialogue from Washington; notably, they come just as Joseph Yun, the State Department's envoy on North Korea policy, traveled to Tokyo and Bangkok for talks about North Korea.
But whether this constitutes a change in policy and whether it stands a chance of success will rest on three big questions.
What does Tillerson consider preconditions?
Former officials and others have long said that the United States needed to get back to the negotiating table with North Korea to avert catastrophe — even if it's just informal “talks about talks” to get the ball rolling.
However, Americans outside government who have recently met with North Korean officials in what are known as “Track 1.5" talks have said that Pyongyang has made clear that it is not interested in any talks about denuclearization. Choe Son Hui, director general of the North America department of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, hammered this home at a nonproliferation conference in Moscow in October. “This is a matter of life and death for us,” Choe said.
On Tuesday, Tillerson acknowledged that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remained the United States' long-term aim. But crucially, he also explicitly stated that the United States would not make discussion of North Korea's nuclear weapons a precondition for talks. “It's not realistic to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program,” he said. “They have too much invested in it.”
One precondition Tillerson appeared to put forward: The United States requires a pause in North Korean weapons testing before talks could begin. “It's going to be tough to talk if, in the middle of our talks, you decide to test another device,” he said. “If we're going to talk, we have to have a period of quiet.”
Left unclear was whether the United States would consider offering concessions to North Korea in return for this freeze, such as halting or delaying joint military exercises with South Korea — a “freeze for freeze” plan favored by China and Russia but rejected by the United States.
Is the rest of the Trump administration on the same page?
In any other U.S. administration, a foreign policy position articulated by the nation's top diplomat might constitute the official White House line. In the Trump administration, it does not.
Denuclearization has frequently (and recently) been cited as a precondition for talks by the Trump administration. Worse still, President Trump himself openly undermined Tillerson's calls for dialogue just weeks ago: On Oct. 1, the president tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” using a nickname to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Tillerson seemed to acknowledge these concerns on Tuesday with a vague reference to Trump. “The president is very realistic about that, as well,” he said after arguing that North Korea would not be willing to give up its nuclear weapons program. But just hours later, the White House seemed to contradict Tillerson. “The President's views on North Korea have not changed,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Tuesday evening.
The Trump administration's seemingly contradictory messaging on North Korean diplomacy may well be tactical and part of the “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy outlined by U.S. officials. But some diplomacy experts worry that the mixed messages — or an unpredictable response from Trump — would end up undermining the prospect of talks.
Suzanne DiMaggio, a fellow at the New America think tank who has been involved in unofficial talks with North Korea, said that although she considered Tillerson's comments about talks positive, she is worried that Trump might “undercut this overture” with a “careless tweet.”
What would North Korea think of this?
What Pyongyang makes of Tillerson's proposals is not publicly known, although Americans who have met with North Korean officials recently have said that the North Koreans are open to talks and keen to avoid war. U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman recently visited Pyongyang to meet with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho; regarding further talks, Feltman said he left “the door ajar.”
Crucially, the advancements in North Korea's weapons program this year might prove to be an opening. North Korea's most recent missile launch, on Nov. 29, was heralded in state media as a victory, and it is possible that Pyongyang, now more confident that its weapons might serve as a deterrent, would view this as a moment to enter into talks with the United States.
However, the North Koreans may also be less likely to talk about denuclearization under these circumstances. It is also unclear whether they would seek concessions from the United States in exchange for talks or whether they would prove to be a trustworthy partner if negotiations went forward.
Tillerson said Tuesday that the Trump administration's push for sanctions and diplomatic isolation was an attempt to force North Korea to be honest, but he acknowledged that many felt North Koreans had cheated on deals in the past. “We’ve looked at what others tried and failed, and the North Koreans have been masters at always gaming those talks,” Tillerson said. “They have never proven to be a reliable counterparty.”
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