Experts say sanctions could be driving North Korea to negotiating table

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a meeting with the Swedish prime minister in the Oval Office on March 6, 2018. (CNN Newsource)

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he hopes North Korea’s reported willingness to engage in dialogue with the U.S. about denuclearization will have positive results, and he believes leader Kim Jong Un’s overture toward negotiations is in part a consequence of his administration’s “very strong and very biting” sanctions.

“I think that they are sincere but I think they’re sincere also because of the sanctions,” Trump told reporters at a news conference with the prime minister of Sweden.

According to South Korean officials, the North Korean regime has offered to halt ballistic missile and nuclear testing during “open-ended” talks and it is willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a guarantee of its safety.

Experts see cause for optimism and cause for doubt, given the tumultuous history of negotiations with Pyongyang.

The offer came via Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security chief, who led a 10-member delegation to the North and met with Kim earlier this week. The North Korean government has not yet confirmed his account of the talks.

“The North expressed its willingness to hold a heartfelt dialogue with the United States on the issues of denuclearization and normalizing relations with the United States,” a statement from President Moon Jae-in’s office said Tuesday. “It made it clear that while dialogue is continuing, it will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.”

According to South Korea, Kim and Moon have agreed to meet for a summit in a border village in late April and maintain a “hotline” for communication to reduce military tensions. The statement also indicated what North Korea would want from the U.S. in exchange for disarming.

“The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” it said. “It 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.”

Trump administration officials and allies have interpreted the news as proof that the president’s “maximum pressure” approach to dealing with Kim is working, but they have also been hesitant to put too much stock in any promises made by North Korea.

“If it actually yields results in terms of denuclearization, this is a massive win for President Trump,” said Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to the president, in an interview.

Vice President Mike Pence sounded a note of skepticism in a statement.

“The United States and our allies remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program,” Pence said. “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.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was similarly dubious, telling senators Tuesday that U.S. efforts to negotiate with the “very calculating” Kim have failed in the past, and this time may be no different.

“Maybe this is a breakthrough. I seriously doubt it," Coats said.

Experts say the Trump administration’s concerns about the sincerity of North Korea’s offer are well-founded.

“I think that people look at talks and they think this is a new way of dealing with North Korea, but in reality we’ve had talks before,” said Olivia Enos, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

Several times over the last 25 years, North Korea has violated agreements, misled its negotiating partners, and used talks as a stalling and diversionary tactic.

“I think North Korea, if their track record is any indication, will not uphold its end of the deal,” Enos said, “so is it worth the U.S. coming to the table again only to have North Korea renege on its promises?”

If the April summit proceeds as planned, it will be the third time the leaders of the North and South have met since the country divided in 1945, and it will be Kim’s first known meeting with any world leader. That is a significant development, but David Adesnik, director of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, cautioned against overselling it.

“That’s a pretty big opening, but on the other hand, I think it’s tactical,” he said. “It’s a divide-and-conquer approach.”

Adesnik believes the North Koreans’ desire to open talks is genuine, but mainly because they think it will either drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul or divert the U.S. from ramping up pressure.

“We can get caught up in our own engagement,” he said. “We’re so committed to looking like things are working that we’ll sign a bad deal.”

According to Gorka, Kim’s offer is noteworthy because it appears to relent on preconditions the Trump administration set for negotiations, but it is also suspect because Kim has proven he cannot be trusted.

“The nature of dictatorships is that they lie,” he said, “but if they don’t test nuclear weapons, if they don’t launch ballistic missiles, that’s a tangible amount of progress which could bring some kind of stability to the region.”

In the absence of confirmation from North Korea of its exact intentions, Joseph DeThomas, a former ambassador and State Department nonproliferation official, cautioned that this could just be South Korea’s over-eager interpretation of the regime restating the position it has stated many times before.

“My concern is simply that we have to be worried about what the South Koreans are hearing because they’re so anxious to engage right now,” said DeThomas, now a professor of international affairs at Penn State University.

On the day before the South Korean delegation arrived, the North Korean government had issued a statement asserting that it would be open to negotiating with the U.S. “only under the right conditions.”

“The dialogue we desire is the one designed to discuss and resolve the issues of mutual concern on an equal footing between states,” state-run media quoted a foreign ministry official saying. “There had been no case at all where we sat with the U.S. on any recondition, and this will be the case in the future too.”

Gorka credits Trump for North Korea’s apparent change in attitude.

“One big thing changed in the last two years and that’s the election of a complete outsider like Donald Trump who sent a very clear message to the world: we will use diplomacy, but at the end of the day, if you threaten us, we will use force,” he said.

Other experts do see evidence that sanctions imposed by Trump are taking a toll on Pyongyang.

“I think it’s possible that the sanctions have created such significant pressure on North Korea that they feel like they have no option other than to talk,” Enos said.

Pointing to Kim’s New Year’s Day speech in which he first proposed participating in the Olympics, DeThomas said there was clearly a decision by the regime to shift the mood of the crisis away from vitriol and threats.

“It could well be that they’re seeing what I’m seeing, which is that they’re really taking an economic hit from the sanctions,” he said, citing trade data from the fourth quarter of 2017.

The prospect of dialogue follows months of heated rhetoric between Kim and Trump, even as Moon worked to advance negotiations and increase communication between the North and South.

In January, Kim agreed to send a delegation of officials and athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, led by his sister. Attempts to arrange a meeting between North Korean officials and Vice President Pence during the games faltered.

Last month, the Trump administration announced it was imposing severe new sanctions on shipping companies and vessels accused of helping North Korea evade existing restrictions.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang has allegedly continued flouting the will of the international community by laundering coal through Russia and sending chemical weapons supplies to Syria. Experts at 38 North have also claimed satellite images from February suggest North Korea resumed production of plutonium for nuclear weapons at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

According to Adesnik, these sorts of transgressions are exactly why the U.S. needs to maintain the pressure even if direct talks with North Korea materialize.

“You have to do both at the same time,” he said, adding that if the Trump administration backs off of sanctions enforcement, Russia and China will have less incentive to continue cooperating.

The South Korean statement was vague about what North Korea means by removing the military threat and guaranteeing its safety in exchange for denuclearization. In the past, the regime’s demands have gone far beyond what the U.S. is willing to agree to and its offers of disarmament have not gone far enough.

“It’s one where probably the devil is in the details,” Adesnik said. “We have no active hostile intentions.”

DeThomas emphasized that these general conditions are not new and past administrations have been unwilling to acquiesce to them.

“What do they mean by their security guaranteed? If what they’re saying is ‘end your alliance with South Korea and remove your troops,’ we’re not in business,” he said.

No matter what North Korea is offering, Enos suggested this is the time to increase the pressure, not decrease it.

“It’ll be interesting to see whether or not the U.S. government decides now is the right time to engage in dialogue,” she said. “In my mind, this seems like the wrong time.”

If North Korea is feeling the burn from sanctions, there are many more entities that could be targeted, particularly in China, and additional sanctions could be imposed over its human rights record as well.

“North Korea may have agreed to a lot of things in these negotiations, but North Korea has not agreed to be a good faith actor, to uphold their word, or to change their human rights record,” Enos said.

All of this is occurring without an appointed U.S. ambassador in Seoul and just days after the State Department’s top diplomat on North Korea policy retired.

“The absence of an ambassador probably doesn’t send the best message to Seoul,” Adesnik said.

With the president conducting diplomacy by tweet, opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication abound.

“This is a very tricky moment and if we’re going to really start talking to the North Koreans, we don’t have anybody who has experience anymore and that’s bad,” DeThomas said.

If the North Koreans are serious about ceasing weapons testing and denuclearizing in a legitimate and verifiable way—and experts stress it is not yet at all clear that they are—the cost of ignoring this opportunity could be high.

“You shouldn’t go in assuming it's peace in our time. You should go in assuming we’re not there yet," DeThomas said, adding, "It’s worth pursuing. It’s better than where we were before the Olympics.”

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