What If Trump’s North Korea Bluster Actually Worked?

Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 7, 2018.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 7, 2018.

Kim Jong Un’s offer of talks with the U.S. is accompanied by questions about his intentions.

President Trump has threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” respond with “fire and fury” to its nuclear weapons, and said “they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world.” His remarks have caused commentators, including at The Atlantic, to worry that Trump could essentially taunt Kim Jong Un into a war. And then, suddenly, South Korea said Tuesday that the North was open to talks with the U.S., including on renouncing its nuclear weapons program—something Kim Jong Un had never put on the table before. Could that mean that Trump’s blustery rhetoric … worked?

Not all the words from Washington have been bellicose, of course. Sometimes the administration has managed to seem both threatening and conciliatory on the same day. Trump has warned Kim about the size of his nuclear button. Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, has said the U.S. is ready for talks with no conditions. James Mattis, the U.S. defense secretary, has said all options are on the table, which presumably includes war as well as talking. Sometimes the administration has appeared to reverse itself within hoursas when Tillerson said last October that the United States has “three channels open to Pyongyang.” Not long after, Trump tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

But R.C. Hammond, who served as senior adviser to Tillerson for public affairs until last December, insists this did not indicate divisions within the administration on North Korea policy. The seeming contradictions in Washington’s rhetoric in the summer and fall of 2017, he said, were an attempt to “tune the radio” with North Korea, sending different signals to see how the North Koreans would respond. (Pyongyang, for example, responded to Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” by threatening Guam.)

In any case, North Korea may now be sending a new kind of signal. Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said pressure on North Korea had helped. “Many people didn’t think this day would come,” she said, adding that the U.S. would confer with South Korean officials about the details of the meeting in North Korea. Trump himself sounded cautious about the development, welcoming it but adding that North Korea’s would be dealt with one way or the other. “We cannot let that situation fester,” he said. “We cannot let it happen.” He credited “the sanctions … and what we’re doing” as a factor in North Korea’s apparent offer.

So even Trump has not given his own tough talk credit for Tuesday’s seeming breakthrough. But those who study North Korea and proliferation were dividedon just how successful Trump’s approach as a whole—which has also included tightening sanctions and persuading North Korea’s allies, including China, to increase pressure on the country—has been in facilitating the offer of denuclearization talks.  

Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said she’d be “very cautious” in giving the administration too much credit. “If you look at what the North Koreans have been saying, they have made it clear that they were willing to come to the table when they felt they were able to deter an attack from the United States,” she said. “Well, now they feel that they can do that.”

This, she suggested, was less about what’s happening in Washington than what’s been happening in North Korea. DiMaggio, who has visited North Korea several times, pointed out that the North Koreans said earlier this year that they have, in Kim’s words, perfected “the national nuclear forces.” “So if [talks with the U.S.] were to move forward, they would be coming to the table as a country that possesses nuclear weapons,” she said. “That’s a major difference. And I think that maybe that’s given the confidence to initiate a return to talks now.”

According to an unofficial translation of the South Korean remarks, the North also agreed to a summit meeting with the South Koreans in late April, and to establish a hotline between the North and South Korean heads of state. Additionally, according to the translation, the North “expressed its willingness to begin earnest negotiations with the U.S. to discuss denuclearization issues and normalize North Korea-U.S. relations” and promised not to “resume strategic provocations such as additional nuclear tests or ballistic missile tests while the dialogue continues.”

But it added: “The North also made clear that there is no reason for them to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed.” On past occasions, this has meant that North Korea is willing to denuclearize only if the U.S. removes its troops from South Korea and ends its alliance with Seoulthings the U.S. has said are not negotiable.

Beyond the potential that Kim is feeling confident, there are several other reasons the North could be making such an offer. It could be that Kim is genuinely keen on dialogue with the United States. U.S. and UN sanctions on the North may have hurt the country economically to the point that Kim feels compelled to negotiate—a similar dynamic that helped bring Iran to nuclear negotiations under Obama. The sanctions might also have hurt the regime’s ability to conduct more missile and nuclear tests, something they did regularly in 2017.

There’s also the possibility that the North, if it is making the offer of talks, is using it to divide the U.S. alliance with South Korea or play for time. Moon Jae In, the South Korean president, was elected on a promise of closer relations with the North—and if Moon sees real potential for that, he could dispute the U.S. insistence on leaving the military option open. (Hammond said the North couldn’t pull this off so easily: “South Korea’s connection with the U.S. is far stronger than anything they can have with North Korea. Our relationship has been developed over decades.”) Or North Korea could use the duration of any talks to continue covert work on its nuclear program, as it did during talks with the Clinton administration in the 1990s.

The reason it’s hard to know which of these possibilities applies is that the U.S. has had little to no direct contact with North Korea. The North is  highly closed society and few details are known about what the regime’s rationale is or how Kim thinks. This isn’t helped by the fact that U.S. diplomatic representation in the region is thinning. There is currently no U.S. ambassador in Seoul. The top candidate for that job, Victor Cha, withdrew his nomination after clashing with the administration’s plans for a military strike on the North. Additionally, Joseph Yun, the special envoy to North Korea, announced his retirement last week. Nauert has said the State Department has sufficient expertise in its ranks to deal with the North. Details of the North Korean offer are likely to become clearer when South Korean officials visit Washington to brief Trump administration officials of the meeting, Nauert said.

Past U.S. administrations have also engaged with North Korea on its nuclear program—but those attempts ultimately failed. These new ones could easily fail too, if they ever happen: The U.S. position remains denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and if, for example, the North Koreans are unwilling to discuss that without a guarantee America is unwilling to givelike an end to the military alliance with South Korea—then it’s as if they never offered to talk denuclearization at all. But if North Korea merely seeks verbal assurances of the kind the Trump administration has already given—like that the U.S. does not seek regime change—the offer could be meaningful.

“At this stage of the game, we don’t know what exactly they mean when they say they are willing to talk denuclearization,” DiMaggio said. “It wasn’t said in any particular context and there was no timeframe given. So this may very well be a situation in which they are saying, ‘We’re ready to return to the table and at some point, depending on how things go, be agreeable to discussing denuclearization.’ But it’s unclear exactly when that will happen. Will it be later this year? A year from now? Longer? What needs to be done before we get to that point?”

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