How to read North Korea’s offer of talks

 In U.S.
ON THE eve of the first summit between leaders of North and South Korea, in June 2000, America’s then-ambassador to Seoul sent a secret cable to his masters in Washington, DC. In it, Stephen Bosworth pondered whether the talks might be an unprecedented chance to lower nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula, or whether they might prove a trap, should a naive South Korean public lose their fear of the Stalinist North and question why American troops were still needed on their soil.

The cable, which was declassified and published last December by the National Security Archive at the George Washington University, offers a timely reminder that for American governments, it is always a mixed blessing when North Korea’s reclusive, murderous regime says that it wants to talk.

That helps explain a cautious tone adopted by President Donald Trump on March 6th, hours after South Korean envoys emerged from talks with Kim Jong Un, the northern leader, to announce plans for a full-scale North-South summit in April. “They seem to be acting positively,” Mr Trump said of North Korea on the sidelines of an Oval Office meeting with the prime minister of Sweden. A deal to end the North’s nuclear arms and intercontinental missile programmes would be “a great thing for the world,” Mr Trump added. At a press conference later in the same day, the president offered his hope that North Korea is “sincere”, and ascribed their willingness to talk to “very strong, very biting” international sanctions. He offered specific thanks to China, which had been a “big help” with sanctions, even if they could do more.

For his part, Mr Trump’s chief diplomat, Rex Tillerson, stressed that North Korea’s quest to build a nuclear arsenal is only one of the ways in which it threatens world peace. The secretary of state’s cool response came shortly after South Korea’s envoys declared that North Korea wants “heart-to-heart” talks with America. The South Korean delegation, led by the national security director to President Moon Jae-in, added that the North had “clearly affirmed” its commitment to a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons, and explained that it would “have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea [be] removed”.

Rejecting any suggestion that North Korea’s rogue conduct is a bilateral headache that America alone can and must solve, Mr Tillerson called on the whole world to isolate and press North Korea to stop “its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and proliferation activities, including its arms exports to Africa.”

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