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Was There Really a Breakthrough in US-North Korea Relations?

In the aftermath of the “Korean spring” at the Winter Games, some observers waxed euphoric over the potential for direct US-North Korea talks. The apparent breakthrough at the Games in North-South dialogue occasioned by Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yu-jong, and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in had put Vice President Mike Pence in an embarrassing position—odd man out as Moon and Ms. Kim discussed a summit meeting while Pence sat on his hands. Pence tried to recover by indicating as he left South Korea that talks with the North might actually be possible—a concession that gave the appearance of a US decision to fall in line with the South Korean view.

But has the US position on how to deal with North Korea actually changed? Reporting on an interview with Pence, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin concluded that “the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime 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 U.S. position, which was to build maximum pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions and only then to engage directly with the regime.” To Rogin, “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.”

A careful reading of what Pence said leads me to a very different interpretation. First, Pence did not say the US position now favors unconditional talks with North Korea. Second, US policy on North Korea’s nuclear weapons is still complete denuclearization, then negotiations. Third, to compel North Korea to denuclearize, the US will continue relying on escalating sanctions.

Read what Pence actually said and judge for yourself. On talking with DPRK: The allies, he said, would demand “at the outset of any new dialogue or negotiations” that North Korea “put denuclearization on the table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Then, and only then, will the world community consider negotiating and making changes in the sanctions regime that’s placed on them today.” “The point is,” Pence added, “no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization. So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

My takeaway is that Pence was merely trying to look accommodating with the South Korean position while retaining a very tough posture with the North Koreans. In practical terms, that bodes ill for any kind of meaningful US-DPRK dialogue, since Pyongyang is not about to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missiles or even put them on the table while it is under severe sanctions and various kinds of US military pressure. My guess is that in Pyongyang’s perspective, the US position hasn’t changed at all: “maximum pressure” that will “intensify,” as Pence said, coupled with preconditions (“concrete steps . . . to dismantle”) that are unacceptable. Kim Jong-un may well ask, “where are the incentives to talk?

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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