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12 Feb, 2018 15:00

Bound and…ungagged? US ready for direct talks with sanctions-bashed N. Korea

Bound and…ungagged? US ready for direct talks with sanctions-bashed N. Korea

Washington is no longer opposed to the idea of talks with Pyongyang without preconditions, but still favors ramping up sanctions pressure against North Korea until it agrees to relinquish its nuclear arsenal, Mike Pence said.

The US vice president disclosed this subtle change in US Korean policy to Washington Post correspondent Josh Rogin while flying back from South Korea after a state visit. Apparently, Pence was convinced that actually talking to North Korea may be a good idea. Previously, senior US officials – starting with President Donald Trump – have insisted that talking to the North Korean government was of no use to America.

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence said as cited by the newspaper. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

So the US still wants to hurt North Korea as much as possible without starting an actual shooting war, but now it looks like it is willing to eventually hear Pyongyang’s plea for mercy. Which is admittedly a step in the right direction compared to obstructing any talks.

Washington previously signaled it was willing for direct talks with Pyongyang in December, when State Secretary Rex Tillerson said as much – only to be disavowed by his own department a day later. Trump at one point called talking to North Korea a waste of time and tweeted that he had told his top diplomat to “save your energy.”

Tillerson gave a lukewarm comment to Pence’s suggestion, saying it was “too early to judge” if such talks would be possible.

“We’ll have to have some discussions that precede any form of negotiations to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something that is meaningful,” he said.

Apparently Washington is at least willing to give a nod to a Kim-Moon meeting, allowing the current truce between the leaders of the two Koreas to extend beyond the Olympics. But it is unlikely to let Pyongyang score any political points, for example, by extending the pause in joint US-South Korean military exercises, which North Korea considers a major threat to its national security. Pyongyang may feel a need to counter such a show of force with more tests, which would further undermine whatever diplomatic effort comes after the end of the games.

There is a lot of mistrust between the US and North Korea, including over the failed diplomatic agreements of the past. For instance, the 1994 Agreed Framework was to see North Korea freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and help in developing civilian nuclear industry. Pyongyang did dismantle its 5 MWe pilot nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, but somehow the US Congress went against the deal, obstructing the lifting of sanctions and funding the construction of light-water nuclear reactors North Korea was promised. The deal finally collapsed when George W. Bush labeled Pyongyang part of the “Axis of Evil.”

The story is somewhat reminiscent of what is currently happening with the Iranian nuclear deal – negotiated by a Democrat president and currently being undermined by a Republican one. So the North Korean government may require a very good incentive to relinquish its nuclear arsenal, which it considers a better guarantee of its survival than any promises given by the US.

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