The possibility that the inter-Korean dialogue could lead to direct talks between the United States and North Korea emerged over the past week after the North invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang for a summit with its leader Kim Jong Un — and Vice U.S. President Mike Pence indicated in a media interview that Washington may be ready for direct talks with Pyongyang without preconditions. Talks between the U.S. and North Korea, if they ever materialize, might pave the way for defusing tensions in the Korean Peninsula over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But the question is whether North Korea is willing to discuss giving up its nuclear and missile programs — which it has steadfastly refused to do so far.
If Kim’s regime has no such intentions, then any such talks risk ending up being a dialogue for dialogue’s sake, which would not serve the international community’s goal of denuclearizing North Korea. The prospect of a Moon-Kim summit must also not be used by North Korea as a means of ending its isolation under international sanctions or fending off possible U.S. military strikes by improving relations with the South.
North Korea’s “charm offensive” at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is obviously intended to disrupt the cooperation among the United States, South Korea and Japan in dealing with Pyongyang. The Japanese, U.S. and South Korean governments need to cautiously assess the North’s intensions and closely coordinate their responses to make sure that future interactions with North Korea will be aimed at eliminating its nuclear and missile threats.
Kim’s letter inviting Moon for a summit in Pyongyang “at the earliest date possible” was hand-delivered to the South Korean president by Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who visited the South to attend the Olympics opening ceremony. Moon, who had advocated engagement with the North and indicated a willingness to visit Pyongyang for the first inter-Korean summit since 2007, reportedly gave a qualified but positive response, saying “let’s create an environment for that to be able to happen.” Moon also emphasized that a resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the United States “is absolutely necessary for developments in inter-Korean relations.” Neither side made direct references to the North’s nuclear and missile programs during Moon’s talks with the North Korean delegates.
That news was followed up by an interview Pence, who also attended the Pyeongchang opening ceremony, gave to The Washington Post on his way back to the U.S. Quoting the vice president as saying that the “maximum pressure campaign” against North Korea will “continue and intensify” until Pyongyang takes steps that “represents a meaningful step” toward denuclearization but that “if you want to talk, we’ll talk,” the report said discussions between Pence and Moon made progress “toward a new diplomatic opening that could result in direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang.” That was taken as an sign of a shift in the position of the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump that it would not talk with North Korea until Kim’s regime first commits itself to scrapping the nuclear weapons program. The report went on to say that the U.S. and South Korea has agreed on the terms of further engagement with North Korea, which would be conducted first by Seoul and then potentially by Washington “soon thereafter.”
Whether Pence’s remarks in the interview indeed signals a significant change in the U.S. posture on the issue remains to be seen. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, following telephone talks with Trump Wednesday evening, said he and the U.S. president affirmed that their governments would maintain pressure on North Korea until Pyongyang seeks dialogue on the basis of giving up its nuclear program. Pence told a U.S. news site that the U.S. posture toward North Korea will not change until Pyongyang gives up its development of nuclear weapons, adding that Trump “always believes in talking” with North Korea but that “talking is not negotiating.”
The prospect of an inter-Korean summit, which would be the first since Roh Moo-hyun visited Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Un’s predecessor and late father, Kim Jong Il, in 2007, is also not clear. The U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises — which Pyongyang strongly objects to as a drill for invading North Korea — is set to resume in April after the Pyeongchang Olympic and Paralympic Games are over. No matter what developments take place in inter-Korean relations and possible talks between the U.S. and North Korea, it needs to be made certain that priority will be placed on getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs, which pose a threat to regional security.