Is North Korea Causing Trouble or Giving Peace a Chance?

February 15, 2018


President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, far left, and Kim Yo-jong of North Korea, far right, watching the two countries’ combined women’s hockey team compete at the Winter Olympics on Saturday. CreditGrigory Dukor/Reuters


After its charm offensive at the Olympics, North Korea’s delegation has returned home from South Korea, leaving some questions behind. Chief among them: Can the new opening between the two Koreas, begun amid the feel-good spirit of the Winter Games, be nudged and nurtured into serious dialogue over North Korea’s nuclear program?

While still a long shot, there’s a somewhat better chance of engagement now owing to two developments since President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and the North Korean delegation, including Kim Yo-jong, the only sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, attended the Olympic opening ceremony.

First was Mr. Kim’s surprise decision to dispatch his sister, his most trusted envoy, to carry his personal invitation for Mr. Moon to join him in a summit meeting in the North. Mr. Moon and Ms. Kim met four times during the Olympics, the highest-level contact between the two Koreas in years. Mr. Moon’s visit would be an even rarer event, since the reclusive Mr. Kim has never met another foreign leader.

While many officials fear that North Korea’s primary goal is to drive a wedge between South Korea, which has been eager to engage the North, and the United States, which has resisted engagement, close coordination between Washington and Seoul would keep the alliance strong.

At the very least, the North-South contacts provide a communications channel for Seoul to directly explain to Pyongyang what it and the United States are doing and saying and why, thus hopefully avoiding any miscalculation that could lead to military confrontations in this fraught period.

The other seemingly positive development was Mr. Pence’s telling The Washington Post that the Trump administration was willing to hold preliminary talks with North Korea even as Washington continues to toughen sanctions and apply other pressures. Only days earlier Mr. Pence insisted there would be no talks until the North made concessions, including taking steps to give up its nuclear weapons.

The new iteration would align Mr. Pence with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. President Trump, who has dismissed engagement with North Korea as “appeasement,” hasn’t repudiated Mr. Pence’s comments.

The administration has long been hostile to the North and critical of its participation in the Games. In recent days, Mr. Pence used increasingly hostile language, calling the North the most tyrannical regime on the planet.

Mr. Pence did not shake hands with, or even smile at, Ms. Kim, as he sat in front of her at the opening ceremony. He could have at least stood when South Korean and North Korean athletes marched in together.

North Korea is a reprehensible regime and the world must never forget that. Still, leaders seeking solutions to major problems like North Korea’s nuclear program don’t have the luxury of picking their adversaries. Mr. Pence might have used the occasion to raise American concerns with Ms. Kim directly, although the South Koreans say she didn’t seem to want to speak with him, either.

All of which leaves unresolved the question of whether North Korea is exploiting South Korea’s desire for peace in order to secure economic or other benefits and break the alliance with the United States, or it wants to resolve the nuclear crisis and other disputed issues.

Neither does anyone know whether Mr. Trump, who has been effective at winning international support for tougher sanctions against North Korea, is serious about pursuing negotiations. Both are wild cards. Much will depend on how the North-South dialogue evolves.

But a special burden rests with North Korea, whose nuclear program violates United Nations Security Council resolutions and is a real threat. If Mr. Kim is serious about resolving the crisis, he could send an early signal by releasing the three Americans still held in North Korean prisons or announcing a pause in his nuclear and missiles testing.