Just days after ministerial-level talks with South Korea fell through, North Korea has today proposed high-level talks with the United States.
The call seems to be the latest step in what has been a significant reversal of Pyongyang’s diplomacy from just weeks ago, when it threatened to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. Those threats followed a nuclear test conducted earlier this year and a rocket test a couple of months before that.
Over the last several weeks, North Korea has dispatched a high-level envoy to Beijing, indicated that it might be prepared to rejoin the six-party talks, and offered to speak with South Korea about reopening the Kaesong Industrial Region. Last weekend, it held working-level talks with Seoul officials, which were to lead to high-level talks later in the week. Those talks were scuttled when the two sides could not agree on who would be attending. Pyongyang blamed Seoul for its “arrogant obstruction.”
And now North Korea has upped the ante with a call for talks with the U.S., to discuss a “wide range of issues of mutual interest”, including denuclearization and a peace treaty that would finally bring the Korean War to an official end.
The U.S. State Department has not yet responded to the proposal, and it is uncertain if it will accept the offer. Pyongyang has insisted that the talks proceed without preconditions, although it has left the time and venue up to Washington.
North Korea has a well-documented history of ratcheting up tensions with threats and provocations, only to step back with policies of rapprochement. Analysts have long explained that the process is a calculated policy used by the regime to retain power. In the latest round of tensions, the rhetoric was unusually heated, although the actions were limited to the closure of Kaesong, the routine launch of short-range missiles, and the jailing of a Korean-American missionary.
What has also been more noticeable this year is the extent to which China has been willing to express its impatience with its troublesome ally. Beijing agreed to two rounds of UN sanctions, but perhaps more intriguingly closed the Foreign Trade Bank’s account at the Bank of China. The Foreign Trade Bank is North Korea’s most important bank, handling overseas transactions and foreign currency. That closure was followed closely by the trip to China of North Korean envoy Choe Ryong-hae.
The extent to which the latest offers of talks – and the sustainability of the current outreach – is unclear at present. Still, given that Japan was deploying a Patriot antimissile battery in central Tokyo just a month or two ago, the de-escalation will come as a relief to many in the region.