President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, have sharply escalated their nuclear saber rattling in recent days. Mr. Kim’s mention in his annual New Year’s Day speech of a “nuclear button” on his desk prompted Mr. Trump to respond Tuesday on Twitter: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
In addition to his predictable bombast, Mr. Kim unexpectedly proposed opening bilateral negotiations between his country and South Korea. The offer was immediately accepted by President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, whose administration fears that the North might disrupt the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South. As a confidence-building measure, Pyongyang reactivated a hotline with Seoul that had been dormant for nearly two years.
While the Moon administration is open to dialogue with the North, Mr. Trump has yet to show a clear willingness to embrace diplomacy as a means to break the impasse over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Mr. Kim’s offer presents an opportunity for Washington and its longtime ally South Korea to unite behind a strategy to freeze the North’s nuclear program at its current level and prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
The diplomatic track has been blocked by Washington’s insistence that North Korea commit to denuclearization as a precondition to talks. But the Trump administration needs to accept that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons as long as the Kim regime is in power.
After an American-led coalition took down the Qaddafi regime in 2011, North Korea declared that Libya had been “tricked into disarmament.” The North Korean leadership’s paramount interest is survival, and all of its actions should be seen through this prism.
For their part, South Koreans have historically had two fears — being abandoned by the United States or unwillingly drawn into a war with North Korea by the United States. Yet even with the increased tempo of North Korean nuclear and missile testing, as well as the escalating rhetoric between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, South Koreans are sanguine about the possibility of war.
A recent Gallup Korea poll found that 58 percent of South Koreans thought there was no possibility North Korea would initiate a war, while 37 percent felt it could. Gallup concluded that South Koreans have grown accustomed to North Korea’s threats of provocation. For the South Koreans, the alarming new factor is not Pyongyang’s rhetoric, but Washington’s.
With Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon’s country seemingly on divergent paths, Mr. Kim’s diplomatic overture poses a dilemma for the South Korean leader. The Kim regime is likely to propose vague measures to reduce tensions on the Peninsula in return for tangible concessions, like suspending American-South Korean military exercises and increasing economic aid, concessions that would add to tensions between Seoul and Washington. And Seoul wants to assure a smooth and peaceful Winter Olympic games, and may be inclined to accept the North’s terms, including permitting North Koreans to participate in the Games.
We should be wary of Mr. Kim’s intentions. His gambit may be a ploy to buy time for the additional testing needed to acquire the capability to strike the continental United States. He may simply be trying to extract economic relief. Or his overture may be purely strategic, an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its superpower patron, the United States.
But Washington and Seoul should not take Mr. Kim’s bait. Instead, the North Korean offer should be put to the diplomatic test through a united Washington-Seoul front.
Starting talks to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions would defuse the current crisis and buy time. For North Korea, an eventual freeze would bring tangible economic concessions, while allowing it to retain the minimum deterrent, which the Kim regime views as the centerpiece of its survival strategy.
Sanctions have failed to rein-in the Kim regime. The only feasible near-term objective is for old allies to come together and push an agreement that freezes North Korean missile and nuclear tests.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s assessment that North Korea has not yet demonstrated the ability to strike the United States means that the window for diplomacy is still open. But it won’t be open much longer.
Robert S. Litwak is senior vice president of the Wilson Center and author of Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout.