SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — At first glance it seems like a blockbuster: North Korea has reportedly offered up its nukes for negotiation, an abrupt reversal from its repeated vows never to relinquish the “treasured sword” it sees as protection against constant U.S. “hostility.”
Experts reading between the lines, however, believe the North may be falling back on a well-worn position when confronting the United States. Essentially: You want our nukes? Then give us credible security guarantees.
This has been seen in the past to mean the removal of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed as a deterrent against the North in South Korea and a halt to annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that the North claims are invasion preparations.
Washington is unlikely to accept any of this, but momentum in inter-Korean ties — South Korea’s president has agreed to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un next month — means there’s a real chance that negotiations could take place.
Here then is a look at the North’s latest offer, which has raised hopes for better days on the Korean Peninsula after a year of nuclear and missile tests by the North and threats of war:
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
According to senior South Korean official Chung Eui-yong, who returned Tuesday from a rare two-day trip to North Korea’s capital, where he met with leader Kim Jong Un, the North said it’s committed to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and that it has no reason to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats against the country are removed and its security is guaranteed.
North Korea also said it’s willing to hold “candid” talks with the United States to discuss the issues of “denuclearization” and normalizing ties. It also promised to suspend nuclear and missiles tests during such future talks, Chung said.
Sounds good, right? After all, Kim has placed nukes at the core of his authoritarian rule over 25 million North Koreans and vowed not to abandon them at any cost.
But the sentences above may simply be a repeat of the way the North has always justified its weapons development: We only need nukes because of the “hostile” policies of the United States and its allies.
By floating a reported desire for the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” North Korea could be pushing for its long-sought goal of removing U.S. military assets.
Seoul and Washington must also guard against the possibility that North Korea will try to use any talks to weaken economic pressure against it and buy time to further advance its nuclear weapons program, according to Kim Sung-han, a professor at Seoul’s Korea University and a former vice foreign minister.
Another important note: Everything we’re hearing about the North’s offer has come from the South. North Korea’s state media haven’t said anything concrete about what was said during Chung’s trip to Pyongyang.
In fact, the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Wednesday repeated that the country must enlarge its weapons arsenal to deal with “American nuclear threats and blackmailing.”
WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE
The complaint by many observers is that North Korea has repeatedly used disarmament talks as a way to ease outside pressure and win badly needed aid, while all the while secretly pressing its weapons development.
Under a 1994 deal with the United States, North Korea pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for international aid to build two power-producing nuclear reactors. The deal fell apart in 2002 when a senior U.S. official said North Korean officials admitted to having a secret nuclear program during his visit to Pyongyang.
On-and-off six-nation disarmament negotiations were later held in China from 2003 to 2008. Deals along the way saw North Korea begin to disable its main plutonium-producing nuclear complex as part of an agreement to eventually dismantle it in return for energy aid and other concessions. Those efforts fell apart amid disputes on how to verify the North’s atomic activities. In 2010, the country stunned the region by unveiling a small, industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility that could allow it a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons.
In 2012, a nuclear freeze-for-food aid agreement blew up when the North abruptly launched a rocket into space in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
“The North Koreans have said many times that they don’t oppose nuclear disarmament, but they’ve also changed their positions so easily. The United States knows this very well,” said Go Myong-Hyun of the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
U.S. President Donald Trump expressed both hope and skepticism over the North’s reported offer, calling it “possible progress” that also “may be false hope.”
WASHINGTON AND PYONGYANG
The United States, Go said, may face a “dilemma” over whether to accept the North’s reported offer for talks, but, in the end, it may pursue “exploratory talks” to hear directly how far North Korea is willing to disarm.
The most effective way for Washington and Pyongyang to proceed might be an exchange of special envoys, who could work on a potential summit between Kim Jong Un and Trump, said analyst Hong Min at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
It seems unlikely to many, however, that Kim will easily give up his nuclear program.
And what might the North demand in any talks?
Possibilities include that the United States modify its annual drills with South Korea, stop dispatching nuclear bombers, submarines and carriers to the region and declare that it won’t attack the North.
“The United States would need to enter any dialogue with very detailed ideas on where it will draw the line in talks with North Korea because there will be a mixture of demands it might be able to meet and those it cannot meet,” Hong said. “It’s unclear whether the Trump administration is ready in this regard.”
— Now that North and South Korea have agreed to hold their first summit in more than a decade, here’s a word to the wise: Success isn’t always defined by quick fixes to big, fundamental problems.
The agreement to hold a summit next month is a major step forward. There’s a lot of room for breakthroughs and important progress between the Koreas themselves and maybe toward setting the stage for the next step — direct, high-level security talks between North Korea and the United States.
But despite the hype and spin that inevitably accompany this kind of news, it’s a pretty safe bet North Korea isn’t going to abandon its nuclear weapons program any time soon. For both sides, there are a lot of potential pitfalls. They have been down this road twice before and they both know the value of a healthy dose of caution.
A look at why this summit matters — even if it doesn’t produce an immediate promise by Pyongyang to denuclearize — and what some of the next moves for the two Koreas and the United States might be:
THE SUMMIT ITSELF
This is a big “get” for both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
It’s been a tough, costly year for North Korea. All those missile launches — Kim was firing them off at a record pace in 2017 — don’t come cheaply. And Kim’s outspoken defiance of President Donald Trump translated if nothing else into heavier sanctions and heightened isolation.
So improving relations with Seoul would give Kim some much-needed breathing room.
In the bigger picture, Kim wants to chip away at Washington’s sanctions-oriented, “maximum pressure” policy. He will be looking to soften up Moon, and get him to agree to more cultural and economic exchanges that challenge Washington’s efforts to isolate Kim’s regime.
Moon, of course, is no political novice.
He isn’t likely to compromise his country’s most important military and economic relationship, which is with Washington. But playing the peacemaker has the potential for a huge payoff, both for the future of his country and for his own political legacy. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for setting up a summit with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in 2000.
Kim Jong Un may well also have a surprising “gift” up his sleeve — a headline-grabbing concession of some sort, possibly something involving the United States, since that is what Moon wants most.
When Kim’s father met Japan’s prime minister in 2002, he agreed to a missile-launch moratorium. He also made the shocking admission that his secret agents had kidnapped more than a dozen Japanese citizens and agreed to allow the survivors to temporarily return home while Pyongyang investigated what happened to the others.
Both agreements ultimately collapsed acrimoniously.
Which brings us to another thing to keep in mind: Overly ambitious, future-leaning agreements with the North have a tendency not to pan out.
Right around this time of year, the United States and South Korea conduct the biggest annual military exercises in the world. Pyongyang sees them as a dress rehearsal for war and generally beefs up its readiness or carries out high-profile missile launches in response.
That’s been the pattern for decades.
To defend its ally, the United States has about 25,000 troops stationed in South Korea. North Korea claims it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against the U.S. threat and has long said it will never relent until its safety is guaranteed, which is usually interpreted to mean the U.S. must withdraw those troops and sign a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War.
On Wednesday, the day after the summit was announced, the North’s state-run media was still touting that line.
“Peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the rest of the world have been reliably guaranteed by the DPRK’s bolstering of nuclear deterrent,” the ruling party’s newspaper said in a commentary. “The DPRK has defended the world peace and security by single-handedly frustrating the U.S. reckless nuclear moves to stifle it by force and dominate the world. Its feats deserve the praise of the world.”
DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
South Korea is suggesting Pyongyang may now be willing to negotiate its position, or at least hold off on missile launches and nuclear tests while talks are underway.
The handling of this year’s exercises could impact its next moves. Seoul and Washington agreed to postpone the exercises until after the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics, which begin this week. Pyongyang is already pushing Seoul to either scale them back or call them off indefinitely, a move some in Washington believe would be a dangerous sign of appeasement.
Are they on the negotiating table?
Adm. Scott Swift, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told reporters on Tuesday in Tokyo that he couldn’t comment on when the exercises will begin. But he added, “The United States has been clear that we respect the sovereignty and the sovereign decisions that the Republic of Korea may make in its own best interest.”
TIME FOR SOME MOONSHINE?
While Washington will loom in the offing, the summit between Kim and Moon is intended to be a Korea summit. So, officially at least, the focus will be on Korea issues.
One thing both sides could easily agree on is more reunions for families divided by the Korean War. The reunions are emotionally charged and not terribly political, so that would be low-hanging fruit.
The bigger theme will be on how to follow up after the two leaders go back home.
Kim’s father used his summits to encourage a “sunshine policy” of increased, long-term investment and trade with the South. Whether Moon is interested in moving toward a similar “Moonshine” policy has yet to be seen.
Moon has expressed an interest in reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an experiment blending South Korean management and capital with North Korean labor that opened just north of the Demilitarized Zone in 2004. At its height, the complex employed tens of thousands of North Koreans. It has been shuttered since 2016.
If the summit goes well, Kim may pull another page out of his father’s playbook and try to involve South Korea in his efforts to develop the port city of Wonsan and the nearby Mount Kumgang tourist area. South Korea was a big investor in the same area back in the late 1990s and tourism actually flourished for about a decade.
But that effort didn’t end well, either.
In 2008, a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean housewife who wandered into a restricted area while visiting there.
Eric Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @EricTalmadge