Officials from North Korea and South Korea held their first direct talks on Tuesday, on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone—the most dramatic sign yet of a slight easing in tensions on the peninsula ahead of next month’s Olympics.
While the meeting is a welcome development, there’s reason to keep expectations low. For one thing, the initial talks won’t address North Korea’s nuclear program, which the regime says is only aimed at the United States, not its Asian neighbors. U.S. officials have also expressed skepticism about the talks, suspecting that they’re aimed at driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea, which have very different approaches to the North Korea crisis. Trump administration officials have put out mixed signals in recent months over whether it’s worth even having talks unless Kim is willing to give up his nuclear arsenal. The Americans also continue to publicly mull limited military strikes on North Korean targets, which could put South Korea in harm’s way amid a North Korean retaliation. Then of course, there’s Trump, who has vacillated between describing negotiations with North Korea as a waste of time and suggesting he wants to meet with Kim face-to-face. The president seems to take the showdown with Kim very personally and could easily fire off a tweet that could derail this whole process.
If he’s willing to undermine his own secretary of state’s diplomatic efforts, why not South Korea’s?
All this is to say that what South Korean President Moon Jae-in is doing here makes a lot of sense:
“I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude,” Moon told reporters at his New Year’s news conference. “It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”
This echoes a statement Trump made on Twitter last week, asking, “does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total “might” against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!”
The general consensus among experts is that, while U.S-led international pressure did play a role in bringing Kim to the table, the main reason he’s now willing to talk is that North Korea has recently made major technological breakthroughs toward its long-sought nuclear deterrent.
But Trump doesn’t need to know that. Moon has learned in the past year that the best way to keep Trump from blowing up this initiative is to convince him it was all his idea.