The visit by a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang and the subsequent North Korean offer to hold talks with the U.S. mark perhaps the most serious attempt in a decade to reduce tensions in the peninsula. South Korean officials who met the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said Pyongyang is willing to denuclearise if the military threat to the North is eliminated and its security guaranteed. The situation has been fraught since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, especially after he threatened the North with “fire and fury”. As Pyongyang continued its weapons programme, Washington kept up economic pressure with biting new sanctions. But even in the face of tensions and repeated war rhetoric from both North Korea and the U.S., South Korean President Moon Jae-in kept open the diplomatic channels after assuming office last summer. This strategy appears to have yielded the current breakthrough. The North first sent Kim Yo-jong, Mr. Kim’s influential sister, to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month, which was followed by the meeting between the South Korean officials and Mr. Kim. Both Koreas have now agreed to hold a summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon, while the North has promised to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests if talks with the U.S. are initiated.
This is a marked shift from the aggressive foreign policy that Mr. Kim has pursued since he succeeded his father in 2011. It also signals that his militaristic foreign policy is linked to perceptions about the survival of his regime, something for which he may be willing to reach a diplomatic settlement with the U.S. Raising hopes further, Mr. Trump has responded cautiously, calling the diplomatic outreach “a serious process… by all parties concerned”. Still, the path ahead will not be smooth, given the lack of trust between the U.S. and North Korea and the bitter experience of the past engagement. Even days after South Korea issued a statement about the North’s willingness to discuss denuclearisation and normalisation of ties with the U.S., Pyongyang is yet to confirm it. It could be waiting for a more concrete response from the U.S. Meanwhile, for Mr. Trump, who favours a muscular foreign policy and who even attacked his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for pursuing talks with North Korea, Pyongyang’s offer poses both an opportunity and a challenge. He can embrace both if he is serious about defusing the nuclear tensions in the Korean peninsula. If a clear and realistic plan for negotiation comes directly from Pyongyang, the U.S. should enable a conducive environment for such talks by delaying the next military exercises with South Korea, scheduled to take place in April.