Ever since North Korea’s Kim Jong Un accepted South Korea’s invitation to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the two countries have been moving at a speed skater’s pace to ease tensions.
It’s a moment of real opportunity — but it’s also a fragile one, because any relaxation of tensions in Korea won’t be sustained unless Washington resumes negotiations with the North Korean regime.
President Trump shows signs he may do just that. "I would love to see them take it beyond the Olympics," he told reporters at Camp David on Jan. 6. "And at the appropriate time, we'll get involved.” He reiterated that four days later in a telephone call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
In the weeks after North Korea’s surprise Olympics move, Washington and Seoul postponed joint military exercises scheduled to begin in February, and the Koreas have restored a military hotline, and have agreed to march together at the opening ceremony, to field a joint women’s hockey team, and to allow a large contingent of cheerleaders and a pop orchestra to travel south across the Demilitarized Zone that has divided them since the Korean War.
Observers were too quick to dismiss Kim’s move as a charm offensive or a ploy to sow division in allied ranks. But some of us who have spent years dealing with North Korea see this opening as the North’s latest attempt to ease tensions — not just with South Korea, but also with the United States.
Amid contradictory messages from the Trump administration, a senior State Department official hinted that time may come sooner than many expect. They told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius last week that face-to-face meetings could start before the Olympics end. The conversation with the North Korean capital Pyongyang can “start at the edges,” with each country describing how it sees the future, and then “work toward the center,” meaning denuclearization was no longer a precondition but an eventual goal. “The Olympics themselves might be the perimeter” from which talks start, they said.
Demanding that Pyongyang suspend nuclear tests without getting anything in return has only delayed diplomatic give-and-take, enabling it to add to its nuclear capacity and boost its bargaining leverage in the meantime. How long will it take for sanctions to compel North Korea to accept talks on US terms? How many ICBM and nuclear tests will it conduct and how many nuclear weapons and ICBMs will it make in the meantime?
Pressure without negotiations has never worked in the past with Pyongyang. There’s no reason to think it will now — and getting China to toughen sanctions won’t help.
Understanding Pyongyang’s strategy, as well as Beijing’s place in it, is the starting point for understanding this. Korea’s history with China has been fraught for centuries, and North Korean–Chinese tensions are hardly new. During the Cold War, Kim Il Sung played China off against the Soviet Union to maintain freedom of maneuver. In 1988, anticipating the Soviet Union’s collapse, he reached out to the United States, South Korea and Japan in order to avoid overdependence on China. As China has grown stronger, that need became more compelling.
Forcing North Korea’s lifelong foes to become friends has been the Kims’ aim ever since.
From Pyongyang’s viewpoint, that aim was the basis of the 1994 Agreed Framework, committing Washington to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” — in plain English, end hostility. That aim was also the essence of the September 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement in which Washington and Pyongyang pledged to “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations” as well as to “negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
For Washington, suspension of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs was the point of these agreements, which succeeded for years in shuttering the North’s production of fissile material and stopping test launches of longer-range missiles. Both agreements collapsed, however, when Washington did little to implement its commitment to improving relations and Pyongyang reneged on denuclearization.
Pyongyang’s desire for an end to enmity could yield much more leverage for Washington than more stringent sanctions.
By contrast, nothing provokes Pyongyang more than cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Far from becoming more pliable, on four occasions when China and the United States cooperated in the UN Security Council to impose tougher sanctions — in 2006, 2009, 2013, and this fall — North Korea responded by conducting nuclear tests in an effort to drive them apart.
Is easing tensions with Washington still Kim’s strategy? The only way to find out for sure is to resume negotiations.
Reciprocity is needed to get North Korea to suspend missile and nuclear tests. It doesn’t mean postponing or canceling joint exercises with South Korea, but their size and operating tempo can be adjusted, especially by suspending deployment of nuclear assets like flights of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers into Korean airspace.
Kim Jong Un himself hinted at that more acceptable version of a freeze in his New Year’s Day address. South Korea, he said, “should discontinue all the nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces.” North Korea’s party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, made that explicit on Jan. 11: “If the South Korean authorities really want detente and peace, they should first stop all the efforts to bringing in U.S. nuclear equipment and conducts exercise for nuclear warfare with foreign forces.”
The odds of persuading North Korea to go beyond another temporary suspension to stop generating fissile material and dismantle its nuclear and missile programs are slim unless Washington and Seoul move toward political and economic normalization, undertake a peace process to end the Korean War, and negotiate regional security arrangements. Eliminating its weapons could only be possible after the North is convinced a fundamentally new relationship is firmly in place, which would take years.
A policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” can only succeed if nuclear diplomacy is soon resumed and the North’s security needs are satisfied. Amid all the chatter about war-war in the news, the administration seems to be moving to try jaw-jaw. Let’s hope that works.
Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York.