North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week suggested that his regime was ready to resume talks with the US. But it has yet to be seen whether the North will actually come to the negotiating table when there is no prospect for gaining significant concessions from the US without taking serious steps toward denuclearization.
During a key meeting of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, Kim said that his reclusive state should be ready for both dialogue and confrontation with the US. Though he stressed the need to “especially get fully prepared for confrontation,” Kim made unequivocal his intent to reengage with Washington by calling for efforts to take stable control of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
It marked Kim’s first message toward the US since President Joe Biden took office in January. Upon the recent completion of its monthslong review of policy on the North, the Biden administration said it would pursue a “calibrated, practical approach” toward the goal of the complete denuclearization of the peninsula.
During the party meeting, Kim made analysis of the policy tendency of the new US administration toward North Korea and clarified appropriate strategic and tactical counteractions, according to the North’s state-run news agency.
US officials have responded to Kim’s remarks in a measured manner.
In an interview with a US broadcaster Sunday, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to Biden, called Kim’s message an “interesting signal,” saying Washington would wait to see whether it would be “followed up with any kind of more direct communication to us about a potential path forward.”
Sung Kim, the US special representative for North Korea, said Monday he looked forward to Pyongyang giving a positive response soon to Washington’s dialogue offer. During a meeting with South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Noh Kyu-duk, in Seoul, he said that Washington would also be prepared for either dialogue or confrontation with Pyongyang.
The shift in Kim’s stance -- early this year he described the US as the archenemy of his country -- seems to reflect deteriorating internal conditions. In a speech at the outset of the four-day party meeting that ended Friday, Kim admitted the North was suffering severe food shortages and suggested that border closures and other strict measures taken to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus were reaching their limit.
If talks with the US resume, the North might focus on securing food and vaccine aid from the outside world while dragging its feet in negotiations on dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
It cannot be ruled out that Pyongyang might also attempt to strengthen its position by threatening to return to a provocative mode and making use of the intensifying rivalry between the US and China. In an op-ed piece to the organ of the North’s ruling party Monday, Chinese Ambassador to Pyongyang Li Jinjun stressed the importance of cooperation between the two countries on regional peace, stability and prosperity.
But the Kim regime needs to recognize that pretended talks aimed at getting over its internal predicament would reach nowhere.
Despite its professed willingness to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang anytime and anywhere, the Biden administration has made it clear that there cannot be a deal that falls short of ensuring the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the North.
US-led international sanctions on the impoverished regime cannot be expected to be significantly eased let alone lifted until complete denuclearization is achieved or guaranteed. Washington may move to impose additional sanctions on the North with regard to its dire human rights conditions if Kim continues to stick to his nuclear ambitions.
In this vein, it should be noted that South Korea needs to be careful not to go too far in trying to forge what it sees as an atmosphere conducive to getting Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.
Aides to President Moon Jae-in have recently proposed not only providing humanitarian assistance for the North but also restoring major inter-Korean economic projects, which could run the risk of violating the global sanctions regime against Pyongyang.
Seoul would be out of step with Washington if it attempts to push the boundaries of the sanctions framework. This would only undermine efforts to build momentum toward resuming talks with the North.