By Mel Gurtov
In the aftermath of the â€œKorean springâ€ at the Winter Games, some observers waxed euphoric over the potential for direct US-North Korea talks.Â The apparent breakthrough at the Games in North-South dialogue occasioned by Kim Jong-unâ€™s sister, Kim Yu-jong, and South Koreaâ€™s President Moon Jae-in had put Vice President Mike Pence in an embarrassing positionâ€”odd man out as Moon and Ms. Kim discussed a summit meeting while Pence sat on his hands.Â Pence tried to recover by indicating as he left South Korea that talks with the North might actually be possibleâ€”a concession that gave the appearance of a US decision to fall in line with the South Korean view.
But has the US position on how to deal with North Korea actually changed? Reporting on an interview with Pence, theÂ Washington Postâ€™s Josh Rogin concluded that â€œthe Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime while that pressure campaign is ongoing. Pence called it â€˜maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.â€™ Thatâ€™s an important change from the previous U.S. position, which was to build maximum pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions and only then to engage directly with the regime.â€ To Rogin, â€œthe White Houseâ€™s endorsement of the concept of initial talks without preconditions is hugely significant. It provides a real fix to the break between Washington and Seoul.â€
A careful reading of what Pence said leads me to a very different interpretation. First, Pence didÂ notÂ say the US position now favors unconditional talks with North Korea. Second, US policy on North Koreaâ€™s nuclear weapons is still complete denuclearization, then negotiations. Third, to compelÂ North Korea to denuclearize, the US will continue relying on escalating sanctions.
Read what Pence actually said and judge for yourself. On talking with DPRK: The allies, he said, would demand â€œat the outset of any new dialogue or negotiationsâ€ that North Korea â€œput denuclearization on the table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Then, and only then, will the world community consider negotiating and making changes in the sanctions regime thatâ€™s placed on them today.â€ â€œThe point is,â€ Pence added, â€œno pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization. So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, weâ€™ll talk.â€
My takeaway is that Pence was merely trying to look accommodating with theÂ South Korean position while retaining a very tough posture with theÂ NorthÂ Koreans. In practical terms, that bodes ill for any kind of meaningful US-DPRK dialogue, since Pyongyang is not about to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missiles or even put them on the table while it is under severe sanctions and various kinds of US military pressure.Â My guess is that in Pyongyangâ€™s perspective, the US position hasnâ€™t changed at all: â€œmaximum pressureâ€ that will â€œintensify,â€ as Pence said, coupled with preconditions (â€œconcrete steps . . . to dismantleâ€) that are unacceptable. Kim Jong-un may well ask, “where are the incentives to talk?Î¦
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.