In what could amount to a significant recalibration of its stance toward nuclear-armed North Korea, the United States has said it is open to talks with the isolated country, Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview published Sunday.
The report by The Washington Post said that discussions between Pence and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics had resulted in “real progress … toward a new diplomatic opening that could result in direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang.”
Outlining the plan, the report said that while Washington and its allies would not halt its pressure campaign on the regime of leader Kim Jong Un until it takes clear steps toward denuclearization, the administration of President Donald Trump “is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime” as the campaign continues.
“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence said. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
According to the report, Washington and Seoul agreed on terms for further engagement with North Korea that would be conducted “first by the South Koreans and potentially with the United States soon thereafter.”
The U.S. State Department referred questions on the report to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Japan Times.
The Trump administration has repeatedly thrown cold water on the prospect of talks with the North unless it first commits to scrapping its nuclear weapons program. The North, for its part, has said it will never give up its nuclear weapons — which it claims are for defensive purposes — and says it will not join talks unless the U.S. halts its “hostile policy” against it.
Citing Pence, the report said that Moon had assured the vice president that he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not receive economic or diplomatic benefits merely for talking — only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization. Based on that assurance, “Pence felt confident he could endorse post-Olympic engagement with Pyongyang.”
“I think it is different from the last 20 years,” Pence said.
Asked what specific steps Pyongyang would have to take in return for real sanctions relief, the U.S. vice president offered up a frank answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s why you have to have talks.”
The shift, to a policy that Pence called “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time,” may be little changed — at least in name — from the North Korea strategy the administration settled on after a two-month review wrapped up last April. That strategy, too, was initially dubbed “maximum pressure and engagement” until the White House began referring to it simply as “maximum pressure” after Pyongyang continued to test advanced ballistic missiles and conducted its most powerful nuclear blast to date.
“The policy has been consistent since it was decided upon a year ago,” said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington. He cited the Trump administration’s sanctions push, its re-listing of the North as a state sponsor of terrorism and its diplomatic campaign to get countries to shutter North Korea’s embassies and outposts.
“The only thing that changed is that North Korea began to feel the pinch … and engaged in a successful propaganda campaign and outreach strategy to a willing South Korean government,” Blumenthal said.
Still, Trump’s own remarks on the North Korean crisis have stoked concerns of confusion in the White House.
In October, the U.S. leader undercut his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, calling his efforts to open lines of communication with North Korea a waste of time, and seemingly ruling out a diplomatic resolution to the confrontation.
This has contrasted with the U.S. leader’s softer line this year. Most recently, in early January, when he told a news conference that he would “absolutely” be open to talks over the phone with Kim and that he “would love to see” North-South talks “go far beyond the Olympics.” The U.S., he said at the time, would be involved at the “appropriate time.”
The growing momentum for talks received a huge boost when a North Korean delegation that included Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, visited from Friday to Sunday, a day after she presented Moon with a formal invitation to hold a summit in Pyongyang.
Moon gave qualified consent to the future meeting with Kim, which would be the first summit of leaders from the two Koreas since 2007.
But analysts said the White House’s shifting stance could create problems down the road for rapprochement.
“The Trump team has given so many scattered statements on its approach to North Korea that it’s hard to know what the policy is, let alone whether one interview represents a change of policy,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “If the Trump administration really wants talks to succeed, he should give a public statement of endorsement to clear up any ambiguity.”
Mount pointed to warnings from the foreign policy community that continued vacillations would tie the hands of any potential U.S. negotiators and undercut their credibility.
Pence, however, maintained in the interview that he and Trump were both on the same page, even going so far as to confer each day of the vice president’s Asia trip.
Ultimately, Pyongyang is sure to want concessions from Washington, including a delay in U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled for April, a nonstarter for the alliance. And a new set of sanctions announced by Pence last week in Tokyo would also dampen the mood for talks, while any nuclear or missile tests by Pyongyang would assuredly stop the diplomatic push in its tracks.
An insistence by the U.S. that North Korea immediately scrap its nuclear program would also pose an existential threat to any talks.
“If their sole focus is on denuclearization, they are likely to find that talks are a dead end,” Mount said. “The plan should be to start from limited objectives like extending the test pause and build out to more ambitious agreements.”
Now, the question remains: How far is the White House willing to go down any path of engagement?
“The Trump administration is … well aware of the very expensive costs of engagement which include the almost automatic lessening of pressure on North Korea by the rest of the world once talks begin,” Blumenthal said.
The White House, he added, has “carefully studied how North Korea has taken us to the cleaners during all of our past negotiations. So I would not expect too much from any talks.” Going forward, the situation will also pose yet another challenge for the already-fraught U.S., South Korean and Japanese relationship.
“This is a real test for trilateral alliance management and diplomacy,” said James Schoff, a Korea and Japan expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Moon will want some room to run and compromise with the North, but he knows there are limits. Japan, like the U.S., is wary of relieving pressure on North Korea, but we’ll have to strike a balance as a way to initiate dialogue and effectively slow North Korea’s [nuclear and missile] programs and testing.
“For Japan — and the U.S. — applying maximum pressure on North Korea is about to become a much more nuanced and delicate endeavor. It’s a long game.”
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