US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that the US won’t set preconditions for North Korea talks. “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk,” he said. This softer line by the US is an encouraging sign that escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula may be eased, but in initiating direct negotiations, Washington and Pyongyang confront a number of challenges.
In late November, North Korea claimed to have tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile and its leader Kim Jong-un said after the launch that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Meanwhile, the US and South Korea concluded their largest ever joint air drills. This heightens concerns that a tiny misjudgment or misstep may plunge the Korean Peninsula into warfare once again.
As the crisis intensifies, more parties have engaged diplomatically with Pyongyang. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week passed on the message to Tillerson that Pyongyang was open to direct talks with Washington on the nuclear issue. On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said negotiation prospects still exist, and the option of resorting to force cannot be accepted. On the same day, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, also a former US diplomat, concluded a rare four-day visit to North Korea during which he talked with the country’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. It was the first trip made by a UN official to Pyongyang in six years.
More importantly, it seems that Washington and Pyongyang are resuming undisclosed lines of communication. It was reported that this year the two sides made quasi-official contact in New York and other locations.
Nonetheless, we cannot be too optimistic about the prospect of Pyongyang-Washington direct talks, as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated on Tuesday evening that US President Donald Trump’s position on North Korea had not changed.
This is the latest case exhibiting the weak relationship between Trump and Tillerson, who have been at odds over various issues. Tillerson once rolled out the policy of the “four nos”: No regime change, regime collapse, accelerated reunification or military deployment north of the 38th parallel dividing the Korean Peninsula, which failed to gain support from the White House.
Opinions on the North Korean nuclear issue differ within the US political realm. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster have powerful influence. There are also rumors that Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, are candidates to replace Tillerson. Both have a tough stance toward North Korea.
Furthermore, it seems North Korea still insists that the US and the whole international community acknowledge its position as a nuclear state. To promote and consolidate its capacity for war with the US, North Korea will likely continue with nuclear and missile tests. It will not easily give up this strategic goal. Some American and South Korean experts predict that Kim may further identify North Korea as a nuclear state in his 2018 New Year speech.
Recently, Washington has been ramping up sanctions and military deterrence on Pyongyang, putting the possibility of direct talks at risk. Apart from the call for an oil embargo on the country, the US is attempting to cut all financial ties. Han Tae-song, North Korea’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said Pyongyang would not attend any talks as long as Washington-Seoul military exercises continue.
It is an imperative time to avoid a war on the Korean Peninsula between now and next spring, the time scheduled for US-South Korean regular military drills. South Korea will hold the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February, which is expected to increase the possibility of resuming peace talks. China’s “suspension for suspension” proposal for calming tensions is becoming the only feasible way to deal with the conundrum, despite the Trump government’s reluctance to accept it.
All along China has supported direct talks between the US and North Korea, yet they cannot come at the cost of China’s national interests in the process.
The Trump government needs to formulate a more cautious China policy at this highly sensitive time. Without stable Sino-US relations, the Korean Peninsula will not enjoy long-lasting peace.
[The author is a senior research fellow with the Charhar Institute in Beijing and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. firstname.lastname@example.org]