But don’t get too excited just yet.
After years of threatening to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons, North Korea now says it wants to chat with US leaders as way to lower tensions due to its improving nuclear weapons program.
That’s big: Washington and Pyongyang only hold diplomatic talks about very specific issues, like releasing US hostages from North Korea. But they rarely discuss a way toward ending the years of animosity between the two countries.
This news comes courtesy of Kim Yong Chol — North Korea’s top representative to the closing ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea — and two days after the US imposed its harshest ever sanctions on North Korea, designed in part to compel the regime to sit down at the bargaining table. North Korea condemned those sanctions in a Sunday statement.
The announcement also comes two weeks after North Korea pulled out of a planned February 10 discussion between Vice President Mike Pence and top Pyongyang officials — including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong.
Kim reportedly made no mention of whether North Korea would discuss ending its nuclear or missile programs — an issue President Donald Trump and top US officials want to negotiate. But North Korea did signal it wants to improve relations with America as it simultaneously builds confidence with South Korea.
Hours later on Sunday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders released a statement about North Korea’s new offer.
“As President Trump has said, there is a brighter path available for North Korea if it chooses denuclearization,” Sanders said. ”We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization. In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.”
Conditions are ripe for a meeting
High level talks with North Korea are difficult, experts tell me, because both sides remain inflexible on key policy positions, which makes it near impossible for them to agree to a meeting. For example, North Korea wants America to stop its military drills with South Korea, but those are likely to restart before April. North Korea also wants to improve its nuclear program; the US, on the other hand, wants the country to dismantle its arsenal.
Washington and Pyongyang, however, might hold lower level meetings in the near future. Here’s why: Alison Hooker, who helps President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy on the National Security Councisel, joined the US delegation to the Olympics. She and Kim — who stands accused of orchestrating a 2010 attack on a South Korean ship that killed around 50 sailors — actually met before when Hooker tried to secure the release of American hostages in 2014.
What’s more, North Korea also sent Choe Kang Il, who heads US affairs in North Korea’s foreign ministry, as part of Pyongyang’s delegation. There’s really no other reason for Choe to join North Korea’s group unless there was some possibility of a US-North Korea meeting. Per the Washington Post, both Choe and Hooker weren’t visible during the closing ceremonies on February 25.
It’s still unclear if the US or North Korea met, or if they plan to in the near future. But two things are evident. First, Trump’s patience with North Korea is running out. “If the sanctions don’t work we’ll have to go to Phase 2,” Trump said on Friday during an afternoon press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “Phase 2 may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.”
And second, North Korea has proven itself a very tough country to negotiate with. That means even both sides do sit down for a meeting, the prospects of a positive outcome still remain quite small.
Why diplomacy with North Korea is so hard
For months, top Trump officials have said the administration would prefer to settle its tensions with North Korea diplomatically.
“While diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action, it is backed by military options,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last August. “The US is willing to negotiate with Pyongyang. But given the long record of North Korea’s dishonesty in negotiations and repeated violations of international agreements, it is incumbent upon the regime to signal its desire to negotiate in good faith.”
Last December, Tillerson took attempts at dialogue a step further during a speech at the Atlantic Council think tank about the Trump administration’s first year in office. “We’ve said from the diplomatic side we’re ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” he said. “Can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?”
But Trump has undermined diplomatic outreach to North Korea several times. Just hours after Tillerson’s remarks, the White House abruptly put out a statement saying, “The President’s views on North Korea have not changed.” In other words, the US would not sit down with Pyongyang until it agreed to consider ending its nuclear program.
Sometimes Trump changes his tune — last month, he told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he’d chat with North Korea’s leader “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances.” And, of course, Trump approved Pence’s potential meeting with North Korean officials. But overall, he remains skeptical of diplomatic talks with North Korea — and there are reasons for that skepticism.
The US and other countries have been trying to come to a diplomatic, negotiated agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program since 1985, according to the Arms Control Association.
They got really close twice. In 1994, the US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, in which the North agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors and fuel oil from the United States.
But the agreement collapsed in 2002, and by January 2003, the North had resumed its nuclear program.
Then in August 2003, the international community launched the so-called “Six Party Talks,” designed to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program through negotiations with five other countries: China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
Two years later, in September 2005, it looked like the talks might work — North Korea formally agreed to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” in exchange for energy assistance from the other countries.
Yet in 2009, amid disagreements over technical details related to verification, North Korea walked out on the talks. It said it would never return to the negotiations and maintains that it is no longer bound by their agreements. Pyongyang has been ramping up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs ever since.
“North Korea is smarter than we are,” Manning, of the Atlantic Council, told me on February 21. “They play a really bad hand exceptionally well.”
And that’s where we are today: a diplomatic stalemate with no end in sight. Worse, it’s more than likely this opening “could easily be derailed if the North tests something,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale University, told me, “or, from Pyongyang’s perspective, probably if we resume military exercises.”
So it’s not guaranteed that any US-North Korea communication will lead to a lasting peace — but it couldn’t hurt, according to Rapp-Hooper. “Diplomacy is still worthwhile if it lowers the risk of miscalculation,” she said.