American policymakers appear highly uncertain and divided among themselves as to moves toward negotiation between North and South Korea in the wake of the Winter Olympics.
The view from the White House is that President Donald Trump has succeeded in forcing the hand of Kim Jong-un, compelling him to mount a “charm offensive” and try to exploit the Olympics to fit his ultimate goal of getting the United States to withdraw its forces from South Korea. Officials have stated repeatedly that they believe Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” paid off while North Korea writhes under the pressure of sanctions in the midst of one of the coldest winters ever.
Nonetheless, the United States would appear to be adopting a relatively conciliatory position that would fit in with the avowed policy of President Moon Jae-in. Thus the White House has been putting out comments about the willingness of the United States to go into negotiations with North Korea. White House officials, obviously taking their cue from Trump, have reaffirmed their interest in talking while Moon has repeatedly said he hopes the Winter Olympics will lead to dialogue and reconciliation.
The White House may be making one significant concession. Previously the United States has been saying North Korea has to show willingness to give up its nuclear program before talks can begin. Now the United States seems to have dropped that condition. The result is that the Americans, to judge from all they’re saying, would be willing to sit down and talk to the North Koreans just to see what they have to say and try to figure out if there’s any way can bring the conversation around to disarmament.
There’s deep disagreement, however, on this approach. Both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have said they want to pursue all possible means to come to terms before considering any other option, meaning the “military option” of staging a pre-emptive strike against the North’s nuclear and missile facilities. They seem determined to stretch out the process, waiting to see what Moon is able to do in dealing with North Korea and if North Korea really appears more conciliatory or will revert to its usual threats, testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to targets in the United States.
The American view, as clearly stated by Vice President Mike Pence, is that the United States has to strengthen existing sanctions against the North and see if Kim Jong-un is willing to follow through on his charm offensive by showing still more signs of reconciliation. Americans don’t care if he denounces the North in rhetorical attacks, editorials in the ruling party’s newspaper and broadcasts, but they will be concerned if he keeps going with missile program and stages a seventh nuclear test.
The debate among Americans dealing with North Korea — at the White House, in the National Security Council and in the Defense Department and State Department — is how firmly to apply pressure and what signals to send. There is much speculation among Americans about a pre-emptive strike but no real consensus on when or whether to do it, especially since Moon opposes any attack on North Korea that might well provoke a bloody attack by the North on South Korea.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster is thought to be more hawkish than Mattis and might favor a quick strike, or series of strikes, against North Korea test sites, but his views may well not prevail against those of Mattis and Tillerson. Trump himself, although he has talked about “fire and fury” against North Korea, is believed to have conflicting views in his own mind. He has, after all, expressed his willingness to talk to Kim Jong-un.
First, the Americans have to wait on two things right after the Olympics. They want to see if Kim Jong-un is serious about inviting Moon to Pyongyang. Moon himself has said that he is waiting for “the right conditions,” a term that may be a polite way of saying the conditions now are not right and we have to wait.
Then, too, we have to see what happens in the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises that were postponed until after the Olympics and subsequent Paralympics. North Korea is demanding that they be canceled, but Moon has assured the Americans that the exercises will go on, as they do every year. North Korea will no doubt counter with rhetorical barrages, which make headlines but do not upset anyone. Is it possible, though, that the exercises will be scaled down — at least to the point of not staging mock air strikes or “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership?
These are questions of which the Americans are highly uncertain. They talk about them without coming to clear conclusions. The debate is driven in part by the observation of the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, that North Korea is moving closer to the point at which it is capable of fixing a warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile that could go all the way to American targets.
That comment means that the time for a decision is near — in Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang. The Americans have to figure out what they’re going to do; Kim Jong-un has to decide what risks he will take and if he can benefit more from dialogue rather than threats; and Moon has to deal with both Washington and Pyongyang in hopes of some form of reconciliation or decrease of tensions.