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Getting to “Yes” with North Korea

For the first time in quite a few years, direct US-North Korea dialogue seems within reach thanks to North-South Korea talks involving Kim Jong-un and top officials of the Moon Jae-in administration. Whether or not North Korea’s complete and verifiable denuclearization, which has long been the chief US demand, will actually be on the table much less be agreed upon remains to be seen, of course. Kim Jong-un surprised the South Korean delegation by apparently indicating a willingness to discuss denuclearization. But most media reports neglected to mention that Kim wants concessions in return—concessions that his father and grandfather have long sought in return for surrendering a deterrent to feared American attack.

From what I can piece together, here is the North Korean position as reported in US and South Korean publications.

North Korea wants:

· Recognition as a “serious partner for dialogue”

· Summit meeting with ROK and resumption of exchanges

· Security assurances, namely, “eliminating the US military threat to North Korea and a guarantee of its security.”

· Normalization of relations with the US

In return, North Korea

· Is willing to discuss denuclearization.

· Will refrain from threats to South Korea: North Korea “will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.”

· Will not demand as a precondition for talking that US-ROK joint exercises scheduled for April be cancelled.

· Will not test missiles or a nuclear weapon during talks with the US.

Note, however, the following qualifications. First, North Korea is willing to discuss denuclearization, but wants compensation for it, notably security guarantees and “eliminating the US military threat to North Korea.” Second, what exactly “denuclearization,” “security guarantees,” and “US military threat” mean aren’t spelled out and clearly will require long-term negotiation. Third, symbolism counts: North Korea wants acknowledgment of its legitimacy in the form of acceptance as an equal negotiating partner. Fourth, North Korea wants normalized relations with the US, an aim previously discussed in 2005 when the six parties reached a step-by-step nuclear agreement.

In a nutshell, the news out of Korea is welcome for defusing tensions and laying out a path to a new negotiated agreement among North and South Korea and the US. But the path is likely to be strewn with obstacles, first, because Seoul is probably far more willing than Washington to work with North Korea’s position and possibly accept less than complete and verifiable North Korean denuclearization; and second, because of the negative US attitude, already on display among “experts” and Trump officials, using expressions such as “we’ve seen this movie before” and “a fig leaf for ulterior purposes.” Such deep pessimism that North Korea will abide by any agreement reached—a pessimism surely shared by some of Kim Jong-un’s inner circle—may well destroy any serious effort to engage Pyongyang.

For what it’s worth, Donald Trump’s initial reaction is the usual “we’ll see.” He’ll have to say and do a lot more than that. In testing Kim Jong-un’s seriousness, Trump should not only refrain from tweeting threats and be willing to settle for less than the North’s total denuclearization, such as a verifiable nuclear freeze. He should also make the kinds of symbolic gestures that are meaningful to the North Koreans, such as sending of high-profile political figure to Pyongyang and indicating respect for North Korea as a negotiating partner.

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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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