It seems President Moon Jae-in of South Korea got what Washington has asked for: an agreement to consider eliminating nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s apparent agreement to talk to the United States about abandoning its nuclear weapons is a relief after the world faced months of tension over Pyongyang’s testing of those devices and Washington’s bellicose response.
For once, President Trump’s tweeted reaction made sense. “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea,” Mr. Trump wrote. “For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U. S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
As he indicated, optimism needs to be tempered with caution, since the hard work needed for a peaceful solution would have to overcome years of distrust and the bitterness of failed negotiations. But there finally seems to be an opening for talks, so the Trump administration needs to seize it.
The news that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had agreed to discuss ending his nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and that he would suspend tests of weapons and missiles during negotiations came from senior South Korean diplomats after discussions in Pyongyang with Mr. Kim. They were the first representatives of the South to meet with Mr. Kim since he came to power six years ago. While the North has not yet made its own statement on the talks, the fact that the South Korean delegation met directly with Mr. Kim was significant.
It seems that the Olympics charm offensive of South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, got a commitment from North Korea that the Trump administration had sought.
North Korea’s position seems to be the same as it has been — that it would have no need for nuclear weapons if it faced no threat from the United States, including the American military presence in the South. North Korea “made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed,” the South Koreans said in a statement.
Such formulations have often been the subject of past discussions with the United States. President Bill Clinton gave such security guarantees as part of a 1994 nuclear deal under which North Korea froze its plutonium program in return for food and other assistance. But the North cheated by establishing a separate uranium enrichment program, and under the George W. Bush administration the deal fell apart.
The Trump administration has been loath to enter into negotiations that would have a similar fate and moved to tighten the already strict sanctions. Washington says it will settle for nothing less than a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the nuclear program.
But the administration’s message has often been shifting and confusing, while getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program has become much harder. The North has at least 20 nuclear weapons and an array of missiles in its arsenal, including one that could reach the United States.
One question is what the North Koreans might demand in return for halting the testing and entering into talks. Mr. Kim apparently has not objected to next month’s United States-South Korea military exercises, or insisted on immediately easing sanctions. Experts say this is because he want a North-South summit set for next month to go smoothly. But those and other issues will be on the table in the future.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the United States having any mechanism to implement a strategy for talks. There is no American ambassador in Seoul, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has so eviscerated the State Department that he may not be capable of effectively moving forward. Joseph Yun, the chief American envoy to North Korea and the one senior person who actually knows the portfolio and has met with North Koreans, retired last week, a decision that can only be interpreted as a further sign of the administration’s inept handing of the issue.
Many things helped bring about this opening, including both South Korea’s determination to avoid war and Mr. Trump’s willingness to consider it, as well as the crushing sanctions. It is an opportunity that cannot be squandered.
That will require creative and sustained diplomacy, toughness, patience and a president who can be disciplined enough to keep his thoughts about the situation off Twitter. It should be obvious that a hope for peace, no matter how tenuous, is more welcome than the threat of war.