Throughout the course of the week the pieces have begun falling in place for a renewed effort at negotiations. Starting with Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Asia last weekend, the U.S. has begun retreating from its hardline stance on restarting negotiations with North Korea. Although Kerry has insisted Washington must see some concrete action towards denuclearization before talks can begin, the general tone used suggests that the administration is ready to abandon its policy of “strategic patience,” once again validating North Korea’s supposedly irrational behavior.
For its own part, Pyongyang appeared to be remain somewhat internally divided on the subject of negotiations with three bodies this week releasing different statements responding to the U.S. overtures in three successive days, each one seemingly trumping the one that came before it. The most recent one came from the National Defense Commission, the highest military body in a country that puts the military first, and therefore can be seen as the most authoritative statement from Pyongyang at this point. Much like the U.S. with denuclearization, North Korea makes three (mostly long-standing) demands on the U.S. for restarting talks, which it knows Washington and its allies will never accept.
Still, there appears to leave enough ambiguity in these demands for Pyongyang to later claim they have been met. For instance, it calls on the U.S. and South Korea to give “formal assurances before the world that they would not stage again such nuclear war drills to threaten or blackmail the DPRK.” The annual ROK-U.S. military drill is scheduled to wrap up later this month and North Korea will likely portray its end as the two countries’ submitting to its demand.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
On paper there is almost no overlap in the sides’ positions that would indicate a diplomatic agreement is even possible. In reality, however, all parties appear to be interested in dialing down tensions and getting past this most recent crisis.
To its credit this has been China’s position all along and a Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated it again during a press conference on Friday. South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye has also continued to maintain that she is ready to soften Seoul’s policy towards the North if the latter tones down its bellicose rhetoric and enters into talks.
The near certainty of a resumption of aid from the South is likely to be enough of an incentive for Kim Jong-un to send an envoy to any negotiations as the young leader has already demobilized the population and signaled that he’s ready to return his focus to trying to improve the country’s dismal economy (particularly light industry).
North Korean diplomats will no doubt be seeking to use the talks to also get the U.S. and possibly Japan to join Seoul in resuming their “tribute” to the Kim-family regime. It’s doubtful that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will agree to this given the continued domestic sensitivities over North Korea’s past kidnapping of Japanese citizens.
The North may have better luck with the U.S. but even if the Obama administration holds a tough line Kim Jong-un is better off ending the crisis having won South Korean aid that would have been forthcoming regardless— as well as possibly increased aid from China for its willingness to dial down tensions—than continuing to escalate tensions, which is unlikely to yield a better deal at this point.