Is There a Breakthrough on North Korea?
March 7, 2018
On March 5, 2018, South Korea sent a delegation, led by National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong and chief of the National Intelligence Service Suh Hoon, to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean high-level officials. The visit was widely seen as South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s response to the summit proposal from Kim Jong-un delivered by Kim’s sister on the occasion of her attendance at the XXIII Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea last month. The South Korean delegation held meetings for the first time with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and announced shortly after their returning from Pyongyang on March 6 that North Korea reportedly expressed a willingness to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with the United States if the country’s security could be guaranteed. North Korea further agreed that while dialogue was ongoing there would not be any additional missile tests and nuclear tests. The South also announced plans for an inter-Korean summit sometime in late April. Have we achieved a breakthrough on North Korea? Not quite yet.
- The South Korean envoy mission and meeting with Kim Jong-un represent significant efforts by South Korea to gain traction and open space for diplomacy coming out of the Pyeongchang Olympics and in advance of the resumption of annual U.S.-ROK military exercises likely to take place in April.
- North Korea’s willingness to talk to the United States is a step forward in averting a crisis, but the formulation conveyed by North Korea of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is not new and reflects Pyongyang’s desire to achieve the end of U.S. extended deterrence guarantees to its South Korean ally and the attenuation of the current alliance commitment.
- North Korea's diplomatic overtures must be viewed in the context of its overall byungjin strategy -- which sees national strategic objectives as defined by the development of nuclear weapons and economic development, not a tradeoff of one for the other. Thus, Pyongyang’s overtures may not represent a watershed change in strategy, but a tactical shift, building on the platform of nuclear weapons to seek economic benefits from the outside world.
- Coordination of policy should be the priority going forward. South Korea has said that progress in inter-Korean talks would operate on the principle of “parallel progress” with U.S.-DPRK talks on denuclearization. Yet, South Korea has already announced a summit in April without any visible commitment yet by the United States to talks.
- Though U.S. president Donald Trump has tweeted an interest in preliminary talks, he has also said the U.S. could “go hard either way,” leaving military options in play as well as reflecting a degree of skepticism about the value of negotiations based on the National Security Council’s reading of historical record of past diplomacy. More details about a U.S. response should become clear after the South Korean delegation travels tomorrow to Washington to give a read-out on the inter-Korean meeting. It is reported that they will also carry a message from the DPRK to the United States.
- In any negotiation going forward, whether it is bilateral or multilateral in form, a reaffirmation of the principles of the 2005 Six-Party Talks Joint Statement would be useful. It is the only place where North Korea has committed in writing to abandoning all its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. It is also the most recent iteration of the U.S. security assurance statement that it will not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons. Other parties to the agreement, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea would presumably support a reaffirmation of these principles.