My, but two hundred years pass by quickly. After Donald Trump announced a new round of sanctions on Friday morning at CPAC, North Korean state media declared that it might take two centuries until the Kim regime would be willing to talk with the US. Forty-eight hours later, South Korea president Moon Jae-in announced that Pyongyang wants to talk now — and Moon is pressing for a meeting ASAP:
In a possible diplomatic breakthrough, North Korea says it is willing to hold talks with the U.S. The message came through South Korean President Moon Jae In, who also met with Ivanka Trump in Pyeongchang https://t.co/wdphePXe17 pic.twitter.com/Jj1XJ8Dwkf
— CBS News (@CBSNews) February 26, 2018
Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump sat in two rows of seats behind the Olympic rings, meant to represent a competition of peace and international unity. In close proximity — though with no apparent communication between Trump and Kim — they watched an exuberant, elaborate show that concluded the Pyeongchang Games.
Even as dancers told cultural stories to music before a huge crowd, South Korea’s presidential office released a brief statement saying that Pyongyang had expressed willingness to hold talks with Washington.
The North has “ample intentions of holding talks with the United States,” according to the office. The North’s delegation also agreed that “South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together,” Moon’s office, known as the Blue House, said.
The BBC speculates that a lower-level meeting could take place immediately. Both countries have key personnel in South Korea who could handle an opening round of talks:
South Korean media is abuzz with suggestions that North-US talks could still take place while the respective delegations are in town.
The BBC’s Laura Bicker, in Pyeongchang, asked an official from South’s government if the meeting could take place in the next two days, and the answer was: “We will see.”
North Korea has sent an eight-person team across the border, including Gen Kim Choe Kang-il, a senior diplomat handling North American affairs.
Meanwhile, Allison Hooker – a Koreas specialist from the US National Security Council – is part of the US delegation. She met Gen Kim in 2014 in North Korea, as the US tried to free two American detainees.
The timing of the shift is more than curious. After Trump’s announcement of the sanctions on Friday in a throwaway line at the end of a long speech at CPAC, the North Korean reaction was “furious,” as the BBC notes. Their foreign ministry called it “an act of war,” and accused Trump of having “brought the threat of war to the Korean Peninsula” with the new penalties. That may not have been simply a rhetorical device; other stories noted that the US had begun to work on an aggressive new plan to board North Korean ships suspected of violating sanctions.
Suddenly, it appears that Pyongyang has changed its mind, or at least its diplomatic direction. Perhaps the Trump administration figured out a sanctions regime that would actually bite the totalitarians at the top of the pyramid in North Korea. It might be that the Kim regime wants to benefit Moon, who ran on engagement over confrontation with the Kims. Their refusal to stop missile and nuclear tests have turned Moon into a reluctant hardliner, to the point where Moon has purchased multiple THAAD installations after having campaigned against the first of them.
But is this a diplomatic breakthrough, or a stall tactic? The US insists that the talks must include denuclearization, a precondition that Pyongyang rejects. They will almost certainly want the latest sanctions suspended as talks begin, while VP Mike Pence specifically warned that there would be no more rewards for mere talks. Low-level talks will have to establish just how much the Kims want to negotiate, or how much they just want to posture and stall.
One point to remember, though: they burned a key strategic partner in sanctions evasion when they conducted the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in the Kuala Lumpur airport. Malaysia cut off diplomatic relations and most of the economic access they had provided to the Kim regime last year. The new round of sanctions will be harder to get around, especially for a nation with very little access to land-based routes for imports and what little exports they produce, and with much less access to international banking systems than a year earlier.
Getting tough might be the reason why North Korea chalked up two hundred years of silence over the weekend. The US may have left them very little choice but to come to the table.