By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein*
(FPRI) — The news that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has invited Donald Trump for talks, and that Trump has accepted, is surely a breakthrough given the past months of sky-high tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program. The two are tentatively set to meet in May of this year, but there is still a long way to go: talks could falter at the planning stage over issues such as what should be on the table, or where the parties should meet (or who should represent the countries). But for now, this is at least a step back from the brink that the world looked to be standing at only a few weeks or months ago.
Still – and I hate to rain on the negotiation parade – it remains unclear precisely what the two are likely to talk about, or what the possibilities and limits are to any progress. A meeting resolves nothing in its own right, and neither the US nor North Korea has changed its most fundamental stances: the US still sees North Korean denuclearization as the ultimate goal of talks, while North Korea still seems unlikely to abolish its nuclear weapons.
Both North Korea and the US appear to be flexible enough in their positions to think it worthwhile to meet. That is a good thing. After the past months of war bluster, much of the world is probably already breathing a collective sigh of relief.
When Kim Jong-un met with a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang a few days ago, he stated that North Korea would hold back on any nuclear or missile tests while engaged in talks with the US, even if the US and South Korea go through with military exercises that North Korea sees as provocations and rehearsals for war on the peninsula. Perhaps, most importantly, South Korean President Moon’s envoy who met with Kim Jong-un, Chung Eui-yong, said Kim had stated that North Korea was prepared to denuclearize in exchange for “security guarantees.”
At the face of it, that all sounds very promising. The problem is, however, that it has never been fully clear what the US and North Korea, respectively, really expect and hope for through talks. For North Korea, “security guarantees” could mean a whole range of things. Withdrawal of US troops from South Korea may just be the beginning. After all, the US does not need to have ground troops present in South Korea to be able to target North Korea militarily should it wish to do so. What if North Korea’s demands turn out to be much more ambitious – such as US withdrawal from the region entirely, or even reciprocal curtailments of the US’s own nuclear arsenal?
In short, North Korea may come to make demands that the US would be highly unlikely to meet. For now, no one knows for sure exactly what North Korea wants in terms of security guarantees, and having seen what happened to dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to put his faith in a peace treaty or the like.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un’s initiative for negotiations should not be seen merely as a sign that sanctions and “maximum pressure” are taking such a toll on the regime that it has no choice but to negotiate. Rather, it may be because Kim feels so confident in the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent that he is willing to sit down and talk. Kim’s action is likely the result of a mix of factors, from the pinch of outside pressure to confidence in North Korea’s position. After all, Kim Jong-un’s strategic situation is much stronger than that of his father was during the Six Party Talks, North Korea now having conducted successful tests of ballistic missiles that many observers believe demonstrate a capacity to strike at the US mainland. No matter what North Korea’s reasoning behind the overture may be, it would be a mistake to see it merely as a sign of weakness. For the past few months, ever since Kim Jong-un reached out to Moon Jae-in over the Olympics, developments on the Korean peninsula have been driven by North Korean actions. Moon Jae-in has proved himself a highly skilled diplomat in getting the US and North Korea to a position where both are willing to talk, but it’s important to remember that for most of the developments throughout this current crisis, North Korea has held the initiative.
The news of an upcoming meeting is progress – for now. The hardest part – actual negotiations – still lies ahead.
About the author:
* Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is an Associate Scholar with FPRI, focusing primarily on the Korean Peninsula and East Asian region. He is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he researches the history of surveillance and social control in North Korea, and a co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch.
This article was published by FPRI.