Washington has rejected North Korea's proposal to suspend nuclear tests if the US called off its annual military drills with South Korea. Nevertheless, analyst John Delury tells DW Pyongyang's move signals an opening.
On January 12, North Korea offered to hold direct talks with the United States and suspend nuclear tests in exchange for a temporary freeze on US-South Korea joint military exercises. Pyongyang also that suggested dialogue could pave the way to changes on the Korean peninsula. The US State Department, however, rejected the offer but said it "remains opens to dialogue" with Pyongyang.
The communist regime's proposal came after South Korean President Park Geun-hye said she was prepared to hold talks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (title picture) without setting pre-conditions. Park's two liberal predecessors held summit talks with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader Kim, in Pyongyang. The UN said it stood ready to support dialogue between the neighboring countries, as "renewed engagement" was the only way to improve relations in the peninsula.
John Delury, Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, says in a DW interview that given this recent overture by Pyongyang the task ahead for the United States is to convince Kim Jong Un that he can improve his security, and thus focus on the country's economy, even as he gradually gives up the nuclear weapons program.
DW: How would you assess North Korea's offer to the US to hold direct talks with Washington on its proposal to suspend nuclear tests?
John Delury: Pyongyang's joint suspension proposal - no nuclear tests in return for no US-South Korea military exercises - is a first step in a more pragmatic direction for US-North Korea relations.
On the face of it, the proposal will be unacceptable to the US government and military. But as a starting point for discussions about confidence-building steps that both sides could take to lower the temperature on the Peninsula, it is a positive overture.
The unfortunately predictable response from the US State Department was to slam the door in North Korea's face, rather than probe further - although it is possible there is backchannel "probing" going on.
Why did Washington turn down the proposal?
In a public statement, the US responded as if joint military exercises were an inviolable and permanent feature of life on the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea's suggestion was "inappropriate" and threatening. In fact, the United States has suspended joint exercises, back at the end of the Cold War.
It was not easy, but the George H. W. Bush administration's suspension of "Team Spirit" exercises, along with removal of nuclear weapons from South Korean territory, set the stage for significant breakthroughs in inter-Korean relations as well as North Korean commitments to stop nuclear weapons development.
Officials in Washington may not be aware of the 1991-92 precedent, but North Korean officials probably remember it like it was yesterday. The US should expect more from North Korea than a nuclear test moratorium in return for partial suspension of joint exercises, and that would be the goal of sitting down with them to follow up on the January 9 proposal.
Is the North Korean regime changing tack?
North Korea is framing the dual suspension only as a preliminary, confidence-building step that would open up further progress toward both sides' goals. What are Pyongyang's goals? It is self-evident that Kim Jong Un wants to remain in power. But beyond that, he has said he wanted to develop the North Korean economy.
However, he will only shift to an economic development focus on the basis of external security. Thus his policy insists on developing a nuclear deterrent. The trick for the United States is to convince Kim he can improve his security, and thus focus on the economy, even as he gradually gives up the nuclear weapons program.
Why would Pyongyang be making such proposals now?
Kim Jong Un might be feeling increased confidence at the start of his third year in power, having purged domestic rivals and after with the spectacular elimination of his uncle Jang Song Thaek.
He seems ready to step onto the world stage and reciprocate offers by Shinzo Abe, Park Geun-hye and Vladimir Putin to hold summit level talks. Demonstrating progress on the nuclear issue with the Americans opens up space across the broader set of concerns North Korea has with its neighbors.
It seems both North and South Korea are seeking to reduce tensions at the same time, but in different ways. Why?
President Park has consistently indicated her hope to improve North-South relations. She campaigned on a moderate stance and has stuck by it for the first two years in office. She already visited Pyongyang, meeting with Kim Jong Il, which is very significant from the North Korean perspective. And her father initiated the "joint declaration" between the two Koreas back in 1972.
As a conservative leader, Park has the potential to do for the Koreas what Republican President Richard Nixon did for US-China relations. Outside of a hard-line conservative core, the majority of South Koreans want greater openness and stability in North-South relations, so Park's openness to talks with Kim is likely to make for good politics at home as well.
John Delury is an Assistant Professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) in Seoul, South Korea.