A high-level South Korean delegation held a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Monday, but analysts remain skeptical the talks will lead to a hoped-for diplomatic breakthrough over the North’s nuclear arms program.
It was the first time South Korean officials met personally with Kim and is part of an effort by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to continue an easing of tensions that started last month at the Olympics.
“Sometimes these kinds of discussions really do reduce tensions, but I don’t think they get to the fundamental issues,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
The United States has said North Korea must agree to discuss reducing its nuclear arsenal of weapons and missiles before it will agree to talks. North Korea has said it has no interest in doing so.
“Back in the early 2000s we had a lot of meetings between the North and the South at very high levels but it was just about how the South could give the North money,” said Stephen Tharp, a retired U.S. Army officer with extensive experience in South Korea. “Nothing changed in terms of security or in a political sense either.”
Still, Moon’s efforts at reconciliation seem to have at least cooled some of the heated rhetoric. President Trump last year dismissed Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.
Kim called Trump a “dotard” and refused to back down on ballistic missile tests.
More recently, Trump has at least signaled a willingness to see if the talks between the two Koreas lead to changes in North Korea’s posture.
"A couple days ago they said we would like to talk, and I said, so would we, but you have to de-nuke,” Trump said at the Gridiron Dinner over the weekend. “Let’s see what happens.”
Moon hopes the talks between North and South could lead to an agreement to have the United States join discussions about Pyongyang's nuclear arms program.
However, analysts see some potential pitfalls in the discussions. North Korea is likely to demand the United States suspend or cancel planned joint military exercises in South Korea.
The U.S. military agreed to delay the annual exercises until after the Olympics and has not said when they would be rescheduled. North Korea has long opposed the exercises, saying they are a dry run for a planned invasion of the North.
A request to cancel the exercises could put the United States in a bind and threaten to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
“If Seoul rejects the linkage and proceeds with the scheduled exercises, North Korea will use that as a pretext to resume testing,” said Balazs Szalontai, an associate professor at Korea University. “If Seoul accepts the linkage, the U.S. will regard that as a case of breaking ranks.”
That is one of the dangers of Moon placing himself in the role of mediator, Tharp said. “He’s supposed to be allied with the United States and someone else is supposed to be the mediator,” he said.
For its part, Washington has sent mixed signals to the regime in Pyongyang in the past. Last year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States was communicating with North Korea over its nuclear program, an apparent reference to back-channel talks.
Trump dismissed the idea the next day. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted.
The conflicting signals suggest the administration hasn’t arrived at a strategy for dealing with North Korea, analysts say. That lack of unity could complicate efforts by the administration to take advantage of progress made during talks between North and South Korea.
“There are competing camps in the administration,” Lewis said.