Asia Pacific

Trump optimistic, U.S. officials cautious amid signs of progress with North Korea on talks over relinquishing its nukes

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald signaled an openness to talks with North Korea on Tuesday, citing “possible progress” after the regime told visiting South Korean envoys that it was prepared to halt tests of nuclear weapons and missiles and would put scrapping its atomic arsenal on the table for discussion — an apparent breakthrough after months of bellicose threats from both Washington and Pyongyang raised the specter of a devastating and bloody war.

The stunning diplomatic opening, unthinkable just months ago, presents the United States with both an opportunity and a challenge as Washington and its allies seek to resolve the long-festering nuclear issue, analysts as well as current and former U.S. officials said.

Trump said the North Korean steps toward U.S. demands that Pyongyang demonstrate a commitment to denuclearization “have been very positive.”

“That would be a great thing for the world,” he said, according to pool reports.

“I’d like to be optimistic,” he added.

Speaking at a televised news conference with Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of Sweden, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea, he said he believes North Korea’s offer to hold denuclearization talks is sincere.

“I believe they are sincere,” he said. “I hope they’re sincere. I think they’re sincere also because of the sanctions and what we’re doing with respect to North Korea.” He added that China has been a “big help.”

Trump’s South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, said the parties had now reached a “critical juncture in our efforts to establish peace and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” according to the presidential Blue House.

“I believe it is still too early to be optimistic because we are only at the starting line,” he said, adding that Seoul believed Washington’s conditions for “selective talks, preliminary talks, have been met.”

The leaders’ remarks came after envoys from Seoul said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had told them he was ready to suspend weapons tests and hold “candid” talks with Washington on ways to realize the denuclearization of the peninsula and normalize bilateral ties, if the safety of his regime was guaranteed, the South Korean government said Tuesday.

In response, Moon agreed to meet Kim for a summit along their heavily armed border late next month.

“Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” Trump wrote in a tweet earlier Tuesday. “The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”

But a senior U.S. official, citing the North’s long history of breaking past agreements, urged caution and perspective.

“We are open-minded, we look forward to hearing more,” the official said during a conference call. “But … the North Koreans have earned our skepticism, so we’re a bit guarded in our optimism.”

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. “posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible moves toward denuclearization.”

The official also noted that the North could still proceed with developing weapons of mass destruction without testing them while also seeking relief from punishing U.N. and U.S. sanctions.

“If their plan is to buy time to continue building their arsenal, talks aren’t going to get very far at all,” he said. “We’ve seen that movie before … and we’re not about to make the latest sequel with a very bad ending.”

In a statement released earlier Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence also urged caution but appeared to signal that the U.S. would accept at least an initial offer for talks with the North.

“Whichever direction talks with North Korea go, we will be firm in our resolve,” he said. “The United States and our allies remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program. All options are on the table, and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable and concrete steps toward denuclearization.”

Dan Coats, who as director of national intelligence is the nation’s spy chief, also served up a cautious initial take.

“Hope springs eternal, but we need to learn a lot more relative to these talks. And we will,” he told a Senate Armed Services hearing.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, told the hearing he did not share a sense of optimism, adding, “That’s kind of a ‘show me,’ and so we’ll see how this plays out.”

Ashley said in written testimony, prepared ahead of news of the diplomatic opening, that additional North Korean missile launches “are a near certainty” and “further nuclear tests are possible.”

Late Tuesday in Seoul, Moon’s top security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, who had returned from meeting Kim in Pyongyang earlier in the day after leading a South Korean delegation, told a news briefing that the two Koreas had agreed to open a communication hot-line between Moon and Kim to “reduce military tensions,” the South’s Yonhap news agency reported. The two leaders were expected to hold their first telephone conversation before the planned summit, he said.

In a key turn of events, Chung said the North had stated its commitment to scrapping its nuclear weapons program while also expressing a willingness to hold talks with the U.S. on how to approach that issue as well as the possible normalization of the two countries’ relationship.

“The North side clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and said it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea removed,” he said.

Pyongyang also said there would be no military provocations — including additional nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches — so long as the U.S.-North Korea talks are in progress, Chung added.

“In addition, the North promised not to use not only nuclear weapons but also conventional weapons against the South,” he said.

Frank Aum, a former senior adviser on North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense who is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said those who have followed the issue for years recognize that North Korea’s demand for an end to the U.S. ‘hostile’ policy “is actually a reference to a laundry list of concessions that would be hard for Washington to give up, like the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula” and ending Washington’s alliance with Seoul.

But even if Washington were to accede to Pyongyang’s request for a security guarantee, Aum said this would not be enough to get North Korea to denuclearize in the near-term.

“If the United States can accept long-term denuclearization, say over 50 years, then North Korea might get on board. But I don’t think this is politically feasible,” he said.

“That’s why I’m pessimistic about North Korean denuclearization,” Aum added. “Still, I think it’s important that we begin the negotiation process anyways.

Chung and Suh Hoon, head of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, are to visit the U.S. this week to brief American officials on the meeting with Kim.

Yonhap, citing unidentified officials from the presidential Blue House, said the pair would depart for Washington on Thursday for a two-day visit. Chung said earlier that he would be carrying an “undisclosed message” from the reclusive state for the U.S.

“We cannot reveal everything to the media, but we do have additional views of North Korea we will relay to the United States when we visit the U.S.,” he said.

After their return from the U.S., Chung will visit China and Russia and Suh will go to Japan. The four countries are members of the so-called six-party denuclearization talks, which also involve the two Koreas. The talks have been stalled since late 2008.

Abraham Denmark, a former Asia official at the Pentagon who now is director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, called the chance at talks “the best opportunity to engage Kim Jong Un on nuclear issues since he came to power” more than six years ago, and said the odds of talks being held are high despite the Trump administration’s hard-line policy.

“It would be shocking if the U.S. were to refuse an offer to negotiate,” Denmark said. “To do so would severely damage relations between Seoul and Washington, and would jeopardize cooperation on pressure with Beijing and Moscow.”

But Denmark also cast doubt on the motives of Kim’s sudden diplomatic gambit.

“There’s also a question of what Kim gets out of this. Instead of ‘freeze for freeze,’ right now it looks like freeze for talks,” he said in reference to a Chinese proposal in which the North would freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for U.S. and South Korea suspending large-scale military exercises.

Denmark also said it was notable that Seoul’s description of the envoys’ meeting with Kim “did not include any specific demand from North Korea.”

“What’s the quid pro quo?” he asked.

Under Trump, the U.S., its allies and Russia and China have worked to tighten sanctions around North Korea to levels unseen as a part of Washington’s campaign of “maximum pressure,” a push with the stated goal of bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and ridding it of its nuclear arsenal.

James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, said that for now, the White House “has to play ball, at least to get clarity about what North Korea’s demands are and to help keep U.S.-South Korea solidarity firm.”

But the Trump administration faces the prospect of talks with the North Koreans without a full stable of experienced diplomats to lead the way. Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, announced he was retiring last month, and the post of American ambassador to Seoul remains unfilled more than a year into Trump’s term in office.

Noting the few officials who have experience negotiating with the North Koreans, Schoff warned that it would take “hard work and expertise” to make any talks a success, but said that “doing it well also means close coordination with Japan and South Korea,” which he said will “be key going forward.”

For most of last year — despite the ramped-up pressure campaign, which saw Pyongyang slapped with a series of international and unilateral sanctions, the expelling of its diplomats from embassies across the globe and a crackdown on illicit regime fundraising — the North maintained its torrid pace of nuclear and ballistic-missile testing. These included the launch of a longer-range missile that experts believe is capable of striking most of the U.S., as well as its most powerful nuclear blast to date in September, which the North claimed was a test of a thermonuclear weapon.

The White House has repeatedly said that “all options remain on the table,” including military action, to rein in North Korea’s nuclear drive — a prospect that has stoked concern in Seoul and Tokyo.

For now, perhaps to allay growing fears of the U.S. or North Korea stumbling into a bloody conflict of catastrophic proportions, it appears the White House is likely to at least agree to what have been called “talks about talks” — a first step in an arduous process of resolving the Trump administration’s most vexing foreign policy challenge.

“This will be a very long and difficult process, and a healthy skepticism is very appropriate,” Denmark said.