President Trump on Tuesday credited his campaign of maximum pressure — coupled with “great help” from China — for driving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sudden decision to raise the prospect of talks with Washington about his nation’s nuclear arsenal and to halt nuclear and missile tests while such negotiations play out.
In stunningly swift thawing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Kim told a visiting South Korean delegation Tuesday that he was ready to hold a “candid discussion” with the Trump administration on denuclearization, that Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear and missile programs as the talks began, and that he was willing to join South Korean President Moon Jae-in next month for the first face-to-face meeting between the nations’ leaders in more than a decade.
With critical details of the North’s offer still to be nailed down, Mr. Trump expressed cautious optimism. He said he believed Mr. Kim’s overture during a meeting with South Korean officials was sincere, but he stressed that it “may be a false hope” to think Pyongyang would truly agree to give up its nuclear security blanket.
“We have come certainly a long way, at least rhetorically, with North Korea,” a cautious Mr. Trump said at a joint White House press conference with visiting Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. “It’d be a great thing for the world, would be a thing great for North Korea, it would be a great thing for the peninsula. But we’ll see what happens.”
National security insiders said it’s too early to know whether Mr. Kim is just trying to buy time to complete Pyongyang’s covert nuclear program or whether Mr. Trump’s bare-knuckle policy approach — coupled with a U.S.-organized set of international sanctions that show signs of truly hurting the North’s economy — has produced unexpected progress.
One caveat evident in the text of the six-point accord brought back by the South Korean envoys: North Korea said it would have no need for nuclear weapons “as long as military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed,” which could call into question the U.S.-South Korean military alliance and the huge U.S. troop presence in the South.
“Does the Trump administration deserve credit for sticking to a policy of maximum pressure while remaining open to engagement? Yes,” said Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “But the cause and effect here is not necessarily something you want to take credit for until you see how it turns out.”
The White House last month announced the sharpest U.S. sanctions to date against Pyongyang. While the increased pressure may have inspired Mr. Kim’s growing eagerness for talks, some point to other important factors at play.
“One is the progress that North Korea has made on its nuclear program …,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow with the New America think tank in Washington. “Kim Jong-un has declared the completion of his nuclear force and believes he now has the capacity to deter an attack by the U.S.
“So in terms of timing,” she said, “it makes great sense that the North Koreans are now ready to return to talks with Washington.”
The shift in Pyongyang
The South Korean president’s office said in a statement Tuesday that the Kim regime had expressed a willingness to denuclearization and to halt nuclear tests in order to get talks underway with Washington.
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s presidential national security director and head of the delegation that met with Mr. Kim, said the late-April summit will be held in Panmunjom, the tense border village where the two hostile Koreas have faced off since the inconclusive end of the Korean War in the 1950s.
The developments, which follow a flurry of North-South diplomacy that surrounded last month’s Winter Olympics in the South, appeared to mark a major shift from Pyongyang, which long refused to discuss its nuclear arsenal or missile programs.
The Trump administration had vacillated on whether it would be willing to engage in direct talks with North Korea if the Kim regime did not first commit to abandoning the programs. As recently as this past weekend, the North Korean Foreign Ministry had criticized Washington for clinging to the idea of denuclearization as a precondition for direct talks.
Efforts to rein in the isolated North’s military programs have repeatedly ended in failure.
Negotiations with Pyongyang broke down in 2009 amid a flurry of North Korean missile tests in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. At the height of the talks in 2005, Pyongyang signed an agreement with the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and South Korea stating that it was “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”
The White House offered a sober message on the denuclearization issue Tuesday, asserting that it is in no hurry to ease its campaign of maximum pressure and sanctions.
“Whichever direction talks with North Korea go, we will be firm in our resolve,” said Vice President Mike Pence. “All options are on the table, and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable and concrete steps toward denuclearization.”
The comments coincided cautious but optimistic posturing from Mr. Trump. “We will see what happens!” the president tweeted.
The U.S. government, Mr. Trump added in an early morning tweet, “is ready to go hard in either direction!”
The president said there was little doubt that his combination of tough, even bellicose rhetoric and coordinated economic pressure had helped change the dynamic of the Korean Peninsula stalemate.
Asked at the White House briefing who was responsible for the North’s apparent turnaround, he responded: “Me.”
“I think [the North Koreans] are sincere also because the sanctions and what we are doing to North Korea, including the great help we’ve gotten from China,” he added.
Mr. Cronin said in an interview that Mr. Trump would be “right to dampen expectations and take it step by step in order to assess what North Korea’s real intentions are here.”
The North’s offer also put pressure on Washington to calibrate its own response, he said.
“The ball is in the president’s court at this point,” Mr. Cronin said.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA division chief for the Koreas and a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, was among those who urged extreme caution on North Korea’s sudden willingness to talk about the future of its nuclear weapons.
“What we do know about North Korea,” Mr. Klingner wrote in an analysis Tuesday, “is that past offers of dialogue frequently prove to be a fig leaf for ulterior purposes.
“The real question: Is this a diplomatic breakthrough, or the setup of a Red Wedding?” said Mr. Klingner, referring to the famous massacre episode of the TV drama “Game of Thrones.”
The road ahead
The challenge for the Trump administration, said Mr. Cronin, is to keep the pressure on the Kim regime “while engagement takes a bigger step in this process.”
“Can we walk and chew gum at the same time? By all means, we have to,” he said. “We have to show agility because Kim has become more agile diplomatically.”
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told a congressional hearing Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials are still trying to determine the sincerity of the North’s offer and Mr. Kim’s willingness to consider giving up his nuclear arsenal.
“We have seen nothing to indicate … that he would be willing to give up those weapons,” Mr. Coats told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said he could not adequately assess the South’s account of the Pyongyang talks until the South Koreans have provided a full briefing, The Associated Press reported.
Ms. DiMaggio said Mr. Trump is hampered by a “very thin diplomatic bench” in any coming talks. There is no permanent ambassador in Seoul, the State Department point man on the North Korean crisis retired last week, and there’s been a “hollowing out” of State Department specialists on the region.
“If we head down this road of talks with North Koreans,” she said, “it’s going to be very challenging because we don’t have seasoned diplomats in place to carry it out.”
While the denuclearization issue could take years to fully resolve, Ms. DiMaggio said, the administration should seize on the opening for talks on a range of other issues, such as getting assurances from the Kim regime that it won’t sell chemical, biological or nuclear weapons material to U.S. enemies or terrorist groups.
“North Korea is the only nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. doesn’t have direct discussions,” she said. “Can we have talks on avoiding an accidental military conflict? That should top the agenda.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article.