An official at the White House National Security Council said on Tuesday that Washington was willing to engage North Korea in order to emphasize its position that the “complete and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is not negotiable.” A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State also mentioned the possibility of a conversation with Pyongyang to “to set the agenda for what you’re going to talk about.” The remarks suggest that it is possible for Washington to hold talks with Pyongyang in order to convey a message that Washington will maintain its “maximum pressure” policy aimed at the North’s denuclearization. U.S. media also report that there is a subtle but potentially important change in the Trump administration’s approach to the North.
The change is only about how a dialogue will be held but not about a shift in the direction of Washington’s North Korea policy or stance. However, Washington appears to have become flexible enough to talk first, deviating from its previous position that it wanted Pyongyang’s declaration of its will to abandon its nuclear program as a precondition for dialogue. There have been debates with the Trump administration over talks with North Korea. After U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson mentioned two to three dialogue channels, President Trump called them a “waste of time,” and the White House also put a brake on Tillerson’s mention of an unconditional meeting with the North.
The United States flexibility would have probably been influenced by a rapid thaw in the inter-Korean relations taking advantage of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the Moon Jae-in administration’s efforts for arbitration. In particular, Moon’s promise to Pence that there would be no easing of North Korea sanctions without Pyongyang’s denuclearization measures has probably worked. Also, it is time for Pyongyang to seek to escape from the stifling sanctions pressure. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un probably wanted Moon to create a situation in which the South Korean president drags Kim to the negotiating table.
However, even if preliminary talks are held before full-fledge dialogue, they would still be “dialogue for the sake of dialogue” if Pyongyang does not change its attitude. North Korea could yet again resort to its typical tactics of escalating a crisis through provocations to induce a compromise. However, Trump stresses that he is different from his predecessors. The White House has not withdrawn its military option. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, “Decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to (the North Korean nuclear issue).” Kim Jong Un should not miss this golden opportunity to get out of his country’s isolation and blockade. By clinging to his nuclear ambitions, Kim cannot feed his people nor can his regime continue to exist.