North Korea Is Ready to Negotiate

After months of saber-rattling, Pyongyang appears to have shifted direction.

After months of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, the North Korean regime appears to be prepared once again to take its place at the negotiating table. Although Pyongyang continues to play the role of angry, wronged party in the inter-Korean conflict, indications from the communist country in recent days appear to signal an end to the earlier saber-rattling.

After North Korea launched a long-range missile last December, the United Nations responded by implementing further sanctions against the regime. The DPRK interpreted this as a gross violation of its sovereignty and responded by testing a nuclear device in February. The international community, including its ally China, strongly condemned the nuclear test. More sanctions followed – this time with more serious consequences for Pyongyang.

This initiated an extended period of tension on the Korean peninsula, during which both sides voiced serious threats. North Korea threatened the South and the U.S. with nuclear strikes, further nuclear tests, a “sea of flames” for Seoul, and a reopening of the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, which had closed in 2007. The country declared the 1953 armistice “null and void”, sentenced a Korean-American missionary to fifteen years hard labor, broke off all official communications with the South, tested six short-range missiles in three days, and withdrew from the Kaesong Industrial Zone, one of the last jointly operated projects between North and South Korea. For their part, South Korea and the U.S. threatened North Korea with “surgical bombings”, simulated a military invasion right in front of its border, and had nuclear planes and marine vessels drill close to DPRK territory.

This dynamic of issuing threats and creating tensions has been discussed extensively in the media. Lately, though, North Korea has ceased its war rhetoric, although without offering rapprochement or offering peace talks. This might be changing now.

Two weeks ago, the DPRK surprised observers by dispatching Choe Ryong-hae, one of the highest-ranking members of the regime, to China. Once there, he spoke to several Chinese politicians, including President Xi Jinping, to whom he handed a letter hand-written by Kim Jong-un. China had acted firmly in response to the North Korean nuclear test and threats by intensifying border control, supporting UN sanctions, and ramping up diplomatic pressure. China also closed the bank account of the DPRK’s Foreign Trade Bank in China, which will have severe consequences for future financial transfers to and from North Korea and which will make it harder for Pyongyang to obtain much-needed foreign currency.

During his visit, Choe stated that North Korea was willing to begin negotiations. It would even be prepared to resume the Six-Party Talks, a diplomatic structure was set up in 2003 to discuss the peaceful dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program. These talks, involving North and South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China, and Russia participate, have been in limbo since 2009, when North Korea withdrew and subsequently conducted two nuclear tests. The fact that North Korea is now willing to restart the Six-Party Talks indicates that it is pursuing a more peaceful negotiating strategy.

However, this important step is not the only sign of North Korean rapprochement. There are rumors that Kim Jong-un is planning to visit China as early as this September. This would reinforce the friendship between both countries. On June 2, North Korean media called the friendship between the DRPK and Chine “an unbreakable one”. A few weeks ago, an aide to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a visit to North Korea, during which he spoke with North Korean politicians. No information of what has been discussed was released by either Japan or the DPRK, but the visit itself is remarkable. Relations between North Korea and Japan have been especially bad since North Korea abducted several Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 80s. The countries have no formal diplomatic relations.

Next, Pyongyang offered to speak to South Korean entrepreneurs to re-open the Kaesong Industrial Region. That offer resulted in working-level talks over the weekend, which in turn produced an agreement to hold higher-level talks this week. North Korean also proposed to hold a joint anniversary celebration of the June 15 Declaration with South Korea. And it announced on May 29 that it wanted to replace the Korean War Armistice with a peace treaty. The Korean War (1951 – 1953) ended in an armistice, but has never formally been ended. Officially, North and South Korea are still in a state of war.

This series of events, primarily taking place over the several weeks, clearly suggest that North Korea is moving away from its threatening, saber-rattling strategy – at least for now. It seems to be trying to charm the parties it has recently threatened to annihilate. Although it is still too early to say where it is going with this – it could simply be part of a long history of similar behavioral swings – the region can still take heart that Pyongyang for now seems determined to pursue more peaceful initiatives.

Casper van der Veen is a Dutch freelance historian/journalist, North Korea expert, and owner of the Dutch website www.nieuwsuitnoordkorea.nl