- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Trump administration responded cautiously Sunday to North Korea’s offer of direct talks, saying dialogue could lead to a “brighter path” for Pyongyang but vowing to keep “maximum pressure” on the Kim Jong-un regime until it undeniably abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The flurry of developments, just days after the administration leveled harsh new economic sanctions against the regime, capped a period of increased engagement between North and South Korea around the Olympics in the South during recent weeks.

With the closing ceremonies of the Winter Games as a backdrop Sunday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that a high-level North Korean delegation had privately signaled willingness to meet with the U.S.

But foreign policy insiders were quick to downplay the development.

“It’s not a breakthrough,” but it is “an opening,” said Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official who served as the State Department’s special envoy to the North Korean talks that broke down in 2009.

Others said it’s unclear whether the efforts by Mr. Moon, who has faced criticism at home and from conservatives in Washington for allowing the North Koreans a showy presence at the Olympics, will result in any lasting impact on the crisis around Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear provocations.

Before the opening of the Olympic Games in early February, the past year was one of sharp tension between North and South Korea — as well as between the Kim regime and Washington — amid months of increased ballistic missile and nuclear tests by Pyongyang in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The Olympics have a spirit of their own that countries can put aside their differences,” said Michael Pillsbury, a senior Asia analyst with the Hudson Institute in Washington, who served as an adviser to President Trump’s transition team last year. “But this is still a wait-and-see situation,” Mr. Pillsbury told The Washington Times, adding that there is “still a lot of uncertainty over whether the Olympics developments will actually open the way to talks or not.”

The consensus inside the Trump administration, he said, is that the sudden flurry of diplomacy “in no way changes the irresponsible and reckless attitudes of the North Koreans.”

The increased engagement around the Olympics facilitated a series of rare, behind-the-scenes meetings between North and South Korean officials — but also created some uncomfortable moments between the Trump administration and representatives of the Kim regime.

Sunday’s closing ceremonies were attended by Mr. Trump’s daughter and senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump, who was rumored to be preparing for a direct meeting with the North Koreans.

But officials said she ended up having no interaction with Pyongyang’s delegation. At the opening ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence was seated near Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

But they, too, did not interact, and Mr. Pence’s office later said the North Koreans had scrapped plans for a secret meeting at the last minute after he criticized the “murderous regime” in Pyongyang.

New sanctions

The administration slapped new sanctions Friday on scores of companies and ships accused of illicit trading with the Kim regime.

With Mr. Trump claiming the move will amount to “the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said his department was blacklisting virtually all ships used by the North.

Mr. Trump, who has vowed to use force if necessary to prevent North Korea’s development of a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland, also warned that if the sanctions don’t work, the U.S. would move to “phase two” in its pressure campaign against Pyongyang.

Without elaborating, the president told a White House news conference that such a development could be “very rough” and “very unfortunate for the world.”

The sanctions triggered a harsh reaction from North Korean state media, which on Sunday accused Washington of trying to spoil a North-South push for diplomacy around the Olympics.

The Olympics took place successfully by the inter-Korean collaboration,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, according to Reuters. “On the eve of closing of the Olympics, United States is running amok to bring another dark cloud of confrontation and war over the Korean Peninsula by announcing enormous sanctions.”

But then came Sunday’s announcement by Seoul that Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party — visiting the South for the closing ceremony — had privately told the South Korean president that Pyongyang was open to talks with Washington.

According to the South’s Yonhap News Agency, Mr. Moon’s office said the talks must be held soon and suggested that they grow from the increased diplomacy between North and South around the Olympics.

The statement offered few other details, such as whether the North had demanded any preconditions. In the past, Pyongyang has said it would be open to talks only if Washington first halts all U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises.

The Trump administration has vacillated on whether it would be willing to engage in direct talks if the North Koreans don’t first declare that they will give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Prospect of direct talks

While the question of preconditions still looms, the administration suggested Sunday that it could be interested in direct talks as long as the Kim regime understands that Washington is firmly committed to “achieving the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“There is a brighter path available for North Korea if it chooses denuclearization,” the White House said in a statement. “We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization.”

In the interim, the administration vowed to keep up its “maximum pressure campaign,” asserting that the “United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.”

Mr. DeTrani expressed optimism that, if the talks come to fruition, they could lead to an immediate cessation of missile launches and nuclear tests by the North in return for a scaling-back of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

“This, then, would set the scene for a negotiation dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and North Korea’s demands for security assurances and eventual normal relations with the U.S.,” he said, adding that the goal might be to restore dialogue back to where it was prior to its collapse years ago.

At the height of arms control talks in 2005, the North Koreans signed an agreement with the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and South Korea, stating that Pyongyang was “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”

Mr. DeTrani stressed that the stakes are high around the current developments. “If there are no talks between the U.S. and North Korea after the Olympics, it’s obvious Pyongyang will continue with its missile launches and nuclear tests,” he said. “Ideally, China and Russia could get Kim Jung-un to better understand that talking to the U.S., especially at this time, is in their interest. Failure to do so will result in more sanctions and intensified joint military exercises.”

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