WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — This week North Korea and South Korea sat down for their first high-level government talks in more than two years. Already the inter-Korean dialogue has produced tangible results.
Pyongyang agreed to send a delegation of more than 400 athletes, cheering squad members, taekwondo performers and reporters to participate in the Winter Olympics next month in PyeongChang. And officials in the North and South are now preparing to hold their first military talks in more than three years.
Last week, President Donald Trump, who has taken an unconventional and confrontational approach to the Kim Jong Un regime, took credit for creating the conditions in which the dialogue could take place.
He tweeted, "With all the failed 'experts' weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn't firm, strong and willing to commit out total 'might' against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!"
On Wednesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-In said he agreed with the U.S. president.
"I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude," Moon told reporters. "It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure."
Over the past year, the United States has led the international community in imposing a series of harsh economic sanctions on North Korea in response to the regime's sixth and most powerful nuclear test and its successful launching of its farthest-reaching intercontinental ballistic missile. The U.S. has backed its diplomacy with regular military drills and cooperation with regional allies like South Korea and Japan, while Trump has turned up the rhetoric, threatening "fire and fury" against North Korea.
Juan Zarate is a co-founder of the Financial Integrity Network and worked on sanctions during his time as a presidential advisor on illicit finance and counterterrorism. Zarate noted that actions taken by the Trump administration over the past year have been a step in the right direction, but to be truly effective, the United States must be relentless in ratcheting up the pressure on the Kim regime and continue to apply pressure to China, North Korea's closest trading partner.
"The sanctions themselves, which have affected directly the trade between North Korea and China, have been very important," he said, noting reductions in coal shipments between the two countries. "One of the deficits of the North Korea sanctions regime over time is it's been very episodic. It's been very reactive." The latest UN sanctions in response to North Korea's ICBM test are a case in point.
"The consistency of pressure, regardless of the talks, regardless of anything, really is important," Zarate stressed. "What I hope we would see is continued interdictions, continued designations, identification of those who are evading sanctions, all of that happening at the same time as a signal to both the North Koreans and the Chinese that there is going to be continuous pressure."
In November, the Treasury Department directly targeted Chinese banks, shippers and other entities who were evading international sanctions against North Korea. The move struck directly at Chinese interests and sensitivities, without triggering direct confrontation.
South Korean officials have welcomed the dialogue and remain open to further discussion about reducing tensions on the peninsula. Upon announcing the talks last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-In declared North Korea's willingness to participate in the Winter Olympics represented "a groundbreaking opportunity for peace."
The initial dialogue securing North Korean participation in the Olympics has now opened up tentative plans for a military dialogue between the North and South. Though aimed primarily at security around the games and ensuring safe cross-border travel, some South Korean officials have suggested the occasion can be used to raise bigger inter-Korean issues, including reunifying war-torn families, and further reduction of tensions along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
According to Frank Aum, senior North Korea expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the inter-Korean dialogue "is a first step and it's only temporary."
As a show of good faith, South Korea agreed to temporarily delay joint military exercises with the United States as a way to reduce tensions during the Winter Games. North Korea sees the joint military drills as provocative and claims they are a pretext for planning an invasion.
"That's one concern, that two months after the Olympics when the military exercises start up again, that we're still in a state of tension .... that we're sort of back at square zero," Aum explained.
In all likelihood, those drills will resume following the close of the Paralympics in mid-March. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated this week that the military can be "quite flexible" in rescheduling the drills and intends to "deconflict" with the Olympics.
"The idea is that for logistics reasons to just to keep everything smooth there," Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. "We're not going to be running exercises, defensive wholly defensive exercises as always, they're not offensive. We're not going to run them at the same time."
The pause creates an opening for reduced tensions and an incentive for North Korea to avoid provocations at least through March, Aum said. The challenge is broadening the talks to address the existential issue, North Korea's nuclear program. That requires the United States and North Korea to sit down together.
"When the two Koreas talk, they don't talk about nuclear issues, because North Korea sees the United States as the appropriate interlocutor on nuclear-related issues," Aum noted. "So to the extent these [inter-Korean] talks may create a peaceful atmosphere and allow for some momentum that leads to talks between the United States and North Korea, that may be something we can look forward to."
He continued that it's hard to imagine those talks on denuclearization actually happening, "because both North Korea and the United States seem to have certain preconditions for starting talks again, and these conditions seem to be fairly insurmountable."
The U.S. preconditions generally include a halt to all nuclear and missile tests and an agreement from Pyongyang that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is on the table. North Korea has demanded a halt to U.S.-South Korean military drills and a withdrawal of the more than 28,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula.
Despite the preconditions, Donald Trump has recently said he is willing to engage directly with Pyongyang despite previous statements that "talking is not the answer." During his call with President Moon on Wednesday, Trump expressed openness to holding talks between the U.S. and North Korea "at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances."
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are hopeful that the time and circumstances could arise to end the nuclear standoff with the Kim regime.
"The time period around the Olympics we always knew was a window of opportunity to maybe bring some common sense to North Korea. So we'll see if we return to the status quo after the Olympics and Paralympics are over," said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.
Gardner, who has been working with the Trump administration on nuclear issues, explained that conversations are going to be an important part of moving forward to a resolution of the crisis on the peninsula, but for the United States to be involved, those conversations have to be geared toward denuclearization.
"We can't just have conversations and give up our insistence on denuclearization. That flies in the face of everything we have stood for," he argued. "The bottom line is, we will not move away from our insistence ton the verifiable, complete denuclearization of the North Korean regime and we will never recognize North Korea as a nuclear power."