The U.S.-North Korea confrontation is nearing another tense inflection point, with North Korea signaling that it could be ready for negotiations with Washington soon, even as it moves toward becoming a full nuclear-weapons power.
When such diplomatic standoffs get resolved, it’s often by allowing each country to claim it’s entering negotiations on its own terms. In this case, North Korea would assert its status as a nuclear-weapons state, while the U.S. would insist the dialogue is about eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This may sound like an unbridgeable divide, but that’s what diplomacy is for.
But as 2017 nears its end, the two countries still appear to be on a collision course. Kim Jong Un’s bellicose rhetoric matches President Trump’s. There’s an odd mutual fascination, too, which one foreign diplomat describes as “love/hate.”
Speculation about talks increased, paradoxically, after North Korea’s latest missile test on Nov. 29, which appeared to demonstrate Pyongyang’s capability to strike the continental United States. In a statement, Kim announced “with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
To some analysts, Kim was declaring victory — and preparing a pivot. Russian emissary Vitaly Pashin told Interfax news agency on Dec. 1, after a visit to Pyongyang, that senior officials there “told me that the North was prepared to sit at the negotiating table.” The Tass news agency said North Korea affirmed it is “ready for talks with Washington on the condition that it is recognized as a nuclear power.”
North Korea’s insistence on its nuclear-weapons status was conveyed to Song Tau, a senior Chinese emissary who visited Pyongyang on Nov. 17. The North Koreans are said to have reminded Song that since 2012, the North Korean constitution has formally characterized the country as “a nuclear state.”
Pyongyang seemingly wants negotiations with America, but on its own terms. Analysts speculate that to justify keeping its existing stockpile of several dozen nuclear weapons, North Korea might promise not to share its nuclear technology with others, and not to attack the U.S. The U.S. would be wary of such assurances, given Pyongyang’s history of broken promises and proliferation.
North Korea evidently wants to be like India and Pakistan, which became de facto members of the nuclear club after building weapons secretly. It doesn’t want to be like Libya or Iraq, whose leaders were deposed and killed after giving up their nuclear programs.
The Trump administration has publicly dismissed the latest overtures. A State Department spokesman said Sunday: “We do not see any indications of North Korea being committed to or interested in credible talks for denuclearization.” And on Monday, State again rejected, as it has for months, Chinese and Russian calls for a mutual “freeze for freeze” on North Korea testing and U.S. military exercises: “It is not enough for [North Korea] to stop its program where it is today.”
An interesting visitor to Pyongyang this week is Jeffrey Feltman, U.N. undersecretary-general and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state. He’s the highest-ranking U.N. envoy there in six years. What’s he up to? Diplomats aren’t talking.
The U.S. strategy for pressuring North Korea remains centered on China, and the hope that the Chinese will tighten sanctions so much that they squeeze Pyongyang into backing down. Many analysts are skeptical this will work: The North Koreans resent Chinese interference, and they have stockpiled a year or more of energy supplies to cope with such pressure tactics.
China doesn’t want a nuclear North Korea; but it doesn’t want a U.S. strike on its border, either. It seeks a diplomatic solution that will resolve the irreconcilable. That’s been a U.S. desire for three decades, too, with no success yet.
History tells us that an unconventional solution was found to avert nuclear war 55 years ago, and interestingly, Washington and Beijing are reviewing those very lessons. According to a senior Pentagon official, a high-level Chinese-American military gathering last week in Washington conducted a joint case study of the Cuban missile crisis.
Has North Korea crossed the nuclear threshold? Pyongyang’s recent statements suggest they have, but some analysts have doubts. North Korea hasn’t shown it can control an ICBM’s re-entry, and it hasn’t fitted an actual warhead atop a missile, sources say.
Will the Trump administration try to block North Korea from crossing this final goal line, by military means if necessary? Or will it seek a diplomatic formula that could, over time, leave all sides better off than the cataclysm of war? At this holiday season, that conundrum is hidden in the dark box in the corner.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.