The US is open for talks without preconditions with nuclear North Korea, Vice President Mike Pence has declared, subtly shifting White House policy after Olympics-inspired gestures of respect between the rival Koreas. That provides a little more leverage for South Korea in its path-finding outreach to the North and could reduce potential strains in the US-South Korean alliance.
But diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang won’t start unless Kim Jong Un wants it to. While the North Korean leader, who has yet to meet a foreign leader, has invited the South Korean president for a rare summit, Kim has given no sign of being ready to talk to the US.
A back channel of diplomatic communication between North Korea and the State Department has remained open since President Donald Trump took office a year ago, but the only substantive talks reported to date were in the first half of last year over the fate of several Americans in North Korean custody. The North has refused to negotiate over its nuclear weapons as it nears its goal of being able to launch an atomic-tipped missile that could strike the US mainland.
Trump views those weapons as America’s primary national security threat. His administration’s 2019 budget, released Monday, includes hundreds of millions dollars more for missile defence, adding 20 strategic interceptors in Alaska to protect against long-range, North Korean projectiles.
Meanwhile, Pence is making clear that the US will keep escalating sanctions pressure on the North until it takes clear steps toward giving up its nukes.
But at the same time, Pence signalled more openness to engagement with Pyongyang. “The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence told The Washington Post on his flight home from the Winter Olympics in South Korea this past weekend. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
That’s a marked departure from the uncompromising message that Pence delivered at every public stop on his trip, when he repeatedly assailed North Korea on human rights and nuclear provocations, and threw cold water on South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s outreach to the North by snubbing its delegation at the games.