By Simon Denyer
The Washington Post
BEIJING — South Korea leaped Tuesday at an offer of talks from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics, betting that tensions between the two countries can be eased after more than a year of insults, military drills, missile launches and nuclear tests.
U.S. officials said they doubt Kim’s sincerity but declared that Washington will not stand in the way, nor will it allow the North to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.
“Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time,” President Trump tweeted, referring to Kim. “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see!”
A top South Korean official suggested that the two sides meet as early as next week.
The offer of talks could lead to a temporary relaxation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But experts warned that North Korea was most likely borrowing from a well-worn playbook, hoping to win relief from sanctions and buy time to improve its nuclear program without offering any real concessions.
In a New Year’s Day speech, Kim said he wanted to ease tensions with the South and was willing to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics, and suggested that the two sides meet to discuss the idea. At the same time, he cautioned the Trump administration that a “nuclear button” was on his desk and his missiles could strike any part of the United States. Trump responded with a threat of his own Tuesday evening.
“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” he wrote on Twitter.
Cho Myoung-gyon, Seoul’s unification minister, responded in a televised news conference Tuesday with an offer to meet as soon as Jan. 9 at the shared border village of Panmunjom to discuss cooperation over the Olympics and how to improve overall ties, news agencies reported. Talks, if they took place, would be the first in more than two years.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in favors dialogue to reduce tensions with Pyongyang and sees the Olympics, which will begin Feb. 9, as a “groundbreaking chance” to improve ties and achieve peace. His government is also extremely keen to see the Games go off successfully.
Some analysts cautioned that Kim may be trying to split South Korea from the United States, its ally. Trump and Moon have not been on the best of terms, and Trump has attacked Kim, personally and repeatedly.
Yet Trump did not appear to be disconcerted by Kim’s move. He said on Twitter that sanctions and other pressure “are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea,” citing the defection of two soldiers from the North across the demilitarized zone into the South in recent weeks.
And while Moon welcomed Kim’s address, he stressed that Seoul would have to coordinate the next steps with its allies, according to the Yonhap news agency.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that “Kim Jong Un may be trying to drive a wedge of some sort between the two nations, between our nation and the Republic of Korea. I can assure you that that will not happen.” She said it is up to South Korea if it wants to open talks with the North. But, she added, “we are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks.”
“I think in the interim there’ll be a temporary reduction in tensions, but ultimately this is going to fail, and it’s not going to open up some big chasm between Washington and Seoul,” said Evan Medeiros, who was the National Security Council’s Asia director in the Obama administration and now heads the Eurasia Group’s coverage of the Asia-Pacific region.
Kim said Monday that he wanted to improve the “frozen” relations between the two Koreas and would “open our doors to anyone” from the South who sincerely sought national concord and unity.
“We earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success,” he said, according to the North’s official KCNA news agency. “From this point of view we are willing to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures; with regard to this matter, the authorities of the North and the South may meet together soon.”
After Moon asked his government to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics, Cho wasted no time in trying to pin down a date.
“We look forward to candidly discussing interests from both sides face to face with North Korea, along with the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics,” Cho said. “I repeat, the government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form.”
Talks could offer an opportunity to dial down tensions on the Korean Peninsula, after a year when war emerged as a real risk.
China’s Foreign Ministry welcomed what it called “positive steps” by both sides.
But a sticking point has been a planned joint military exercise with the United States, which North Korea sees as preparation for war. Moon has asked Washington for a postponement until after the Olympics, but no agreement has been reached.
Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia under President Barack Obama and is now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Kim’s aim is to “divide and conquer.”
“Kim wants to unwind sanctions and clearly sees President Moon’s angst over the Olympics as the weak link in the allied chain,” he said. “Diplomacy is always the preferred option, and this opening should be explored carefully. But it would be naive to expect North Korea to negotiate in good faith or consider itself bound by new agreements, given its past record.”
Pre-emptive strike carries risk
The Trump administration’s national security strategy calls for a more aggressive approach toward stopping a North Korean missile strike on the U.S.: knocking the weapons out prior to launch.
But it’s unclear if the U.S. has the technology or on-the-ground intelligence to effectively carry out a preemptive strike in that kind of crisis situation. And if it fails, the result could be an even bloodier conflict.
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, say there’s still time for diplomacy to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Tillerson has led what he calls a “peaceful pressure” campaign that relies on stepped-up sanctions while signaling a willingness to restart talks. He’s co-hosting a gathering of foreign ministers in Vancouver on Jan. 16 to discuss “security and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un extended both a warning and olive branch in a New Year’s Day speech, offering to hold talks with South Korea while also claiming his nuclear deterrent was “irreversible” and that it would prevent President Donald Trump from starting a war. “It’s reality, not a threat, that the nuclear button is always on my desk,” Kim said. “The U.S. can never start a war against myself and our nation now.”
Trump’s national security strategy, unveiled in December, has options to turn to if diplomacy fails. It calls for a layered missile defense approach “focused on North Korea and Iran to defend our homeland against missile attacks. This system will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch.”
That would be more aggressive and challenging than so-called “boost phase” missile defense technologies intended to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles just after launch. U.S. systems still don’t possess a proven capability of doing that, according to analysts and officials.
Trump’s proposal could include preemptive or “left of launch” options, such as lasers, special operations and long-range strikes with GPS-guided munitions as well as cyberattacks, said missile defense advocate and analyst Peter Huessy, president of Maryland-based GeoStrategic Analysis.
The strategy takes a page from former President George W. Bush’s controversial blueprint — elevating preemptive military strikes into national policy — that was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Senior administration officials who briefed reporters in December acknowledged the term “preemption” isn’t used in the formal document, but say the strategy makes clear the U.S. will defend its interests when threatened.
Just as the Bush administration’s justification for the preemptive invasion of Iraq was undercut by faulty intelligence, Trump’s strategy could face similar hurdles. That’s because “left of launch” depends on enhanced, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to detect and track mobile launch vehicles for attack, according to Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
North Korea’s rapid 2017 progress in developing ICBMs and nuclear weapons took most analysts by surprise, highlighting some of the existing intelligence shortfalls.
“The surveillance and reconnaissance side of the missile defeat equation is an important component to all this: you can’t intercept or strike prior to launch that which you don’t or can’t see,” said Thomas Karako, a missile defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.