Maybe it's President Donald Trump's "fire and fury" threats and coarseness with the leader he calls "Little Rocket Man." Maybe it's the squeeze of international sanctions. Maybe it's both. But after years of brinkmanship and missile tests, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be signaling willingness to talk to the U.S. about rolling back his nuclear weapons program, and halting missile and nuclear tests while negotiations are ongoing.
South Korean envoys wrapping up a two-day visit with Kim announced the news. If genuine, the development represent a remarkable about-face by the North Korean leader, who within the last year has exploded what was widely believed to be a hydrogen bomb, and has tested intercontinental ballistic missiles meant to have U.S. cities within range – New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
So far, the Trump administration's reaction has been measured. "For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned," Trump tweeted Tuesday. "May be false hope but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!"
We share the skepticism. Kim and his predecessors have played this game of freeze and thaw before: Pyongyang dangles the promise of denuclearization, only to renege. North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons in 2005 during the so-called "six-party talks," then restarted its program three years later. During the Obama administration, Pyongyang in 2012 agreed to halt nuclear testing. Ten months later, ballistic missile testing resumed, followed by another nuclear test.
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In all, Pyongyang has carried out three underground nuclear detonations and test launches of more than 40 ballistic missiles since 2014.
So Washington should proceed cautiously, in keeping with U.S. wariness about the rapprochement gelling between North and South Korea. That flirtation flourished during the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, most notably when athletes from both countries marched together during the opening ceremonies under a unification flag.
Skepticism about North Korea's offer was reflected Tuesday in remarks by Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr., head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Ashley said Kim "shows no interest in walking away from his nuclear or his ballistic missile programs. Additional missile launches are a near certainty, and further nuclear tests are possible."
Pyongyang would like nothing more than a scaling back of sanctions as a prelude to talks – but Trump should decline any such demand. The prospect of sanctions removal should be in play only when the world sees an end to North Korea's nuclear program.
The North Korean regime's motives have always been consistent, no matter which member of the Kim family has been at the helm. Stay in power, get the 20,000 American troops deployed in South Korea to leave the Korean peninsula, and ultimately bring South Korea under Pyongyang's rule. That should always inform America's approach to Kim, particularly when he clutches an olive branch.
It's been 64 years since the Korean War ended in a stalemate, dividing the peninsula into communist North and democratic South. The specter of conflict has loomed over the region ever since. The world would gleefully welcome a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. But it also is all too aware of Pyongyang's promises of the past, and the hollowness of those promises.