Despite the hurdles, it’s time for Washington and Pyongyang to talk

The recent cancellation of planned “track 1.5” talks is disappointing

By Maria Rosaria Coduti, North Korea Analyst at NK News and Academic Tutor at the University of Bologna. She is due to start studying for her PhD in The School of East Asian Studies in late 2017

Image courtesy of KCNA:

The perception, by some North Korea analysts, that something good would result from the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States seemed to materialize on February 19, as it was reported that preparations were underway in Washington for “track 1.5” talks with Pyongyang.

The talks, with one side, North Korea, sending formal senior governmental representatives and the other, the U.S., sending former officials and experts, would have taken place in New York if the U.S. State Department had approved visas for the North Korean delegates. A week later, however, it was announced that they would not.

The main cause of the decision of the U.S. Department of State to deny visas for the North Korean delegates is most likely the recent murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, and the discovery that he had been killed by the chemical weapon VX in a plan orchestrated by Pyongyang, according to South Korea. In light of this, and the February 12 surface-to-surface ballistic missile test, it has become too difficult for Washington to justify bringing North Koreans on its own soil, for fear it would represent a “reward” that Pyongyang does not deserve.


This sort of policy, of not granting anything to the North unless it does not conform to international norms, has long been the modus operandi of U.S. administrations, and the reason why the international community has not engaged in any diplomatic process with the country since the failure of the Six-Party Talks in 2009.

The outcomes of this choice have been disastrous, inducing the Kim regime to further develop its nuclear deterrent – in response to a perceived threat to its survival – and provoking an increase of military tensions in Northeast Asia.

“The main cause of the decision of the U.S. Department of State to deny visas for the North Korean delegates is probably related to the murder of… Kim Jong Nam”

The hope of a new policy under the Trump administration surfaced during his electoral campaign, when the candidate signaled that the diplomatic channel would be an option for him in dealing with North Korea and expressed a willingness to hold direct talks with Kim Jong Un. For its part, the North Korean regime sensed an opportunity to come back to direct talks with Washington too, as a memorandum released by its Foreign Ministry last November showed.

In this document, Pyongyang not only described Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” as one of “strategic suffocation”, but also made clear what would have been the starting point for a Trump’s incoming administration for talking to it, affirming that: “the DPRK has chosen the road of possessing nuclear weapons as a self-defensive measure to safeguard its state […] The U.S. should face up to the new strategic position of the DPRK and take actual measures to show that they are willing to scrap its anachronistic hostile policy against the DPRK”.


In other words, the nuclear power status of North Korea is a fait accompli, whether or not the U.S. recognizes that publicly, and if Washington aims at starting a constructive dialogue with the country it has to do that without unrealistic preconditions about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which offer a security guarantee for the Kim Jong Un’s regime and are the basis of his power.

The belief that this could happen under the leadership of President Trump originates with his “exceptionality” as a pragmatic businessman used to the art of making deals.

As highlighted by Markus Bell and Marco Milani, indeed, “his apparent ease at breaking with diplomatic norms,” combined with his being a “leader free from the structures of post-Cold War geopolitics, allow him a free hand in dealing with matters of foreign policy.”

Even if the White House has not announced any coherent strategy yet, the new administration is currently conducting a review of the U.S.’s North Korea policy. If they had succeeded, the “track 1.5” talks could have represented a precious opportunity to understand what both parties are willing to accept in order to move the dialogue to a higher level.

The nuclear power status of North Korea is a fait accompli, whether or not the U.S. recognizes that publicly

But it seems that Washington has missed this chance, once again, because of its inability, or unwillingness, to look at North Korea as something more than its leader, and one which deserves to be dealt with in spite of any “provocation.” As argued by Antonio Fiori, the “socialization” of North Korea into the global community is crucial for an actual improvement of life conditions inside the country.


The U.S. should firstly acknowledge the shortcomings of previous approaches which rested on the two pillars of “sticks and carrots” and on pressuring China to exercise its influence over Pyongyang to make the latter halt its nuclear program.

North Korea under Kim Jong Un is not willing to bargain its nuclear arsenal for economic incentives from the U.S., and China, even if frustrated by the “provocative” behavior of Pyongyang, will never let the regime collapse and create instability at its doorstep. China’s role has always been that of a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea, rather than a solution to the problem.

From Beijing’s point of view the U.S. is the decisive actor in overcoming the actual stalemate on the Korean peninsula by returning to negotiate with North Korea. The recent announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce of the suspension of coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year, indeed, should be interpreted more as a “cooperative gesture to the incoming Trump administration in return for an initiative on negotiation”, as noted by Stephan Haggard, rather than as a way to bring down the Kim regime.

At the same time Pyongyang, which has been seeking direct talks with Washington for years (since the 1960’s actually), should also realize that it cannot just request the immediate suspension of the joint military U.S.-South Korea exercises nor the signing of a peace treaty. Indeed, these are the end goals of a long-term process of diplomatic engagement of which the “track 1.5” talks represent just the first step.

Instead of myopically continue to focus just on the nuclear issue, the U.S. and the international community should address their efforts in resolving military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

For now, preventing any crisis from further escalating must be the first priority of any talks between the parties involved, who need to concentrate on security-building and crisis management activities in order to reduce tensions in the region and create an environment more conducive to dialogue.

In turn, this will gradually lead towards the actual reduction of threat perceptions, which is the key in letting Pyongyang to begin “focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation.”

The State Department has not allowed North Koreans visas this time, but maybe Trump’s willingness to talk with them is still there, and he is just waiting for the right time.

This article was first published by NK News on March 2, 2017. Read the original article