Tillerson explained his willingness to accept talks with the North Koreans stemmed from a somber realism; there is no way to get the North Koreans to agree to give up their nuclear program from the get-go as they’ve “invested too much” into its development. The goal according to Tillerson should be simply “meeting face-to-face.”
Intriguing news of new diplomatic channels between North and South Korea is now the latest installment in the dramatic political saga taking place on the Peninsula.
International outlets have reported that North Korea is set to send athletes and cheerleaders to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea after the two countries ended a series of official meetings. These talks were the first official interactions between the two countries in more than two years.
The cautious agreement is being presented by diplomats as a small yet significant breakthrough in cooling the months-long tensions, which have been consistently stoked by North Korean weapons testing and American military threats. South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, said Seoul believed “guests from the North are going to join many others from all around the world” at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games. “The people have a strong desire to see the North and South move towards peace and reconciliation,” he said.
The American administration has allegedly not been absent from these dealings. President Trump took credit for recent talks between the North and South, telling reporters at Camp David: “If I weren’t involved they wouldn’t be talking about Olympics right now. They’d be doing no talking or it would be much more serious.” It is unclear whether Trump was claiming to have had some hidden diplomatic involvement in bringing the talks about or he was asserting that America’s policy stance indirectly pressured the North Koreans into coming to the table.
Trump ended his comments stating that South Korean President Moon Jae-in of South Korea had thanked him “very much for my tough stance” and added that previous US governments “haven’t been using a tough stance, they’ve been giving everything.”
Another possible allusion to the U.S. weighing in on the new channel between the countries came from Defense Secretary James Mattis. Last week Mattis held a spur-of the-moment press conference at the Pentagon in which he spoke about coming U.S. military exercises to be held in tandem with South Korean forces.
In his statements, Mattis explained that the planned drills would be disruptive if conducted at the time the Games were held. They were therefore being postponed until the Paralympics section of the event was completed. Mattis ended his remarks by asserting that the rekindling of talks between Pyongyang and Seoul were the direct result of sanctions emanating from a unified international community, which includes North Korea’s long-time allies, China and Russia.
“It shows the democracies and the nations that are trying to stop this from going to war, and stopping the provocations of nuclear weapons development and ballistic missile launches are united in trying to find a diplomatic solution,” Mattis said.
North Korea was quick to undermine the significance of the talks as well as the upcoming delegation of North Korean athletes to the South. North Korea will only discuss the Olympics, not any of the security issues plaguing the region. North Korean officials made a “strong complaint” after Seoul proposed talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula for their upcoming meeting during the Olympics.
Pyongyang’s chief negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, reassured his Southern counterparts stating that “all our weapons including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles are only aimed at the United States, not our South Korean brethren.”
The current milestone that the Korean crisis finds itself in is in many ways a very poignant reflection of the web of dynamics surrounding the conflict.
The West has to straddle a very delicate balance when addressing the Korean problem.
On the one hand, North Korea is ruled by a despotic madman, or rather a patrilinear line of despotic madmen. Everyone knows this. Trump has veered from the diplomatic norm by making this very explicit at every possible opportunity, from social media posts to UN speeches, but this has been an accepted fact for years.
The U.S. and South Korea, along with other regional allies like Japan, must take this threat very seriously. This is why there are 23,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. This is also why the administration has taken such a hardline stance throughout the current escalation of tensions that began last summer, and unrelentingly pushed sanctions via the UN Security Council over the past several months.
The uncompromising stance of the United States was summed up recently by UN ambassador Nikki Haley when she told reporters at UN headquarters that the U.S. “will never accept a nuclear North Korea.” Haley stated that America would push for bringing “even more measures to bear on the North Korea regime” in the event that Pyongyang continued to pursue aggressive policies such as additional missile tests.
There is another side however, which adds a layer of subtlety to the conflict, that is often overlooked.
The U.S. and South Korea both have an interest in keeping the door open to Pyongyang, and letting them know that talks are always an option. This facet of America’s diplomatic strategy was brought to the forefront a month ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. At a conference set up by the Atlantic Council, Tillerson told listeners that the US was willing to talk with North Korean leaders “without precondition” with the purposes of setting up a “road map” for a long-term program.
There was something very refreshing in listening to Tillerson’s words essentially inviting North Korea to an open discussion. “We can talk about the weather … if that’s what excites you.” Tillerson explained his willingness to accept talks with the North Koreans stemmed from a somber realism; there is no way to get the North Koreans to agree to give up their nuclear program from the get-go as they’ve “invested too much” into its development. The goal according to Tillerson should be simply “meeting face-to-face.”
Tillerson’s showing willingness to compromise prompted a sharp response from the administration. White House officials told media sources that “the administration is united,” and that negotiations will not get off the ground before “the regime fundamentally improves its behavior,” adding that this must include a solid commitment to “no further nuclear or missile tests.” Clearly the administration did not want Tillerson’s words to be mistaken for weakness.
Interestingly, Trump himself expressed some of this very olive-branch-like sentiment for which he reprimanded his Secretary of State. When asked at the same Camp David conference if he would be willing to engage in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump responded:
“Sure, I believe in talking … absolutely I would do that, no problem with that at all.” However when asked in follow up if that meant there would be no prerequisites for such talk, the president said: “That’s not what I said at all,” adding “[Kim] knows I’m not messing around, not even a little bit.”
Thus the two sides of a highly delicate situation. One with very high stakes.
The Olympics and the upcoming meeting of diplomats from Pyongyang and Seoul are an important step in all of this, embodying in a way the relaxed and inviting attitude Tillerson espoused in early December. Despite North Korea’s insistence that there will be no discussions of disarmament, and despite the less than formal setting of the planned talks, the fact remains that North Korea has actually agreed to sit in the same room as its southern neighbor.
It is persistent, small steps such as these that will keep us all from falling into the abyss. Just maybe they may also bring about something resembling an actual resolution.