Despite the mutual chilliness between U.S. and North Korean officials in South Korea last week, behind the scenes real progress was made toward a new diplomatic opening that could result in direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang. This window of opportunity was born out of a new understanding reached between the White House and the president of South Korea.
Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview aboard Air Force Two on the way home from the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, told me that in his two substantive conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his trip, the U.S. and South Korea agreed on terms for further engagement with North Korea — first by the South Koreans and potentially with the U.S. soon thereafter.
The frame for the still-nascent diplomatic path forward is this: The U.S. and its allies will not stop imposing costs on the Kim Jong-Un regime until it takes clear steps toward denuclearization. But the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk while that pressure campaign is ongoing.
Pence called it “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.” That’s an important change from the previous position, which was to build that kind of pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions, and only then to engage directly with the regime.
“The maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify,” Pence said. “But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
Before Pence and Moon’s meetings, the Trump and Moon administrations were not aligned on whether Seoul’s new engagement with Pyongyang should continue after the Olympics end.
That dissonance showed just before their first meeting, when Moon said he wanted Olympic engagement to lead to real negotiations while Pence talked only about the pressure track. But inside the meeting, there was a breakthrough. Pence told Moon the international community must not repeat the mistakes of the past by giving North Korea concessions in exchange for talking.
Moon assured Pence he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic benefits for just talking — only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization. Based on that assurance, Pence felt confident he could endorse post-Olympic engagement with Pyongyang.
The initial move the U.S. wants is for North Korea to put denuclearization on the table and to take steps toward it, though that is not a condition for preliminary talks. That may be a bridge too far for North Korea, which is adamant that the international community accept its nuclear status. It is also sure to want concessions from Washington, such as a delay in U.S.-South Korean military exercises — a non-starter.
There are other spoilers that could torpedo the new opening. In Tokyo, Pence announced new sanctions on North Korea that he promised would be the toughest ever, due to be unveiled soon. In response, the Kim regime may resume testing its nuclear and missile programs, as it has done after past Olympic detentes. That would halt the diplomatic progress in its tracks.
Moon is working hard to prevent that from happening. He is entertaining a North Korean offer to visit Pyongyang. He is also urging the North Koreans to sit down with the U.S. at the earliest opportunity.
The White House’s endorsement of the concept of initial talks without preconditions is hugely significant. It provides a real fix to the break between Washington and Seoul. It also increases the chances the U.S. and North Korea will soon begin a process that represents the best hope of preventing a devastating international conflict.