Is a restart to substantive US-DPRK talks on the horizon?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reads a letter from U.S. President Donald Trump
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reads a letter from U.S. President Donald Trump. Image: Rodong Sinmun

There are indications that the US and North Korea are moving to restart negotiations after many months of stalemate following their bilateral summit in Hanoi. A whirlwind of recent events supports this: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a personal letter to US President Donald Trump; Chinese President Xi Jinping visited North Korea; and Trump responded to Kim’s letter with his own.

Kim said that the personal letter was “excellent,” expressed his “satisfaction” with it, and even added that he would “seriously contemplate the interesting content.” This response suggests that the letter has some kind of proposal that could become the basis for restarting US-DPRK negotiations.

North Korea’s Publicization of the Letter is Important

While the exchange of letters in and of itself is an important step forward, what is even more significant is that North Korea reported that Kim received Trump’s letter on the first page of Rodong Sinmun. North Korean authorities would likely have difficulty explaining the reason for restarting negotiations with the US given that North Koreans are aware, through rumors, that the Hanoi summit was a failure.

North Korean leaders appear to have publicized the letter from Trump as part of efforts to provide justification for the restart of negotiations. In other words, the North Korean leadership is aiming to show its people that the American president has expressed a desire to meet with its leader.

Taken together, the developments indicate that US-DPRK working-level negotiations will begin again soon. Trump will visit South Korea shortly, and US-DPRK negotiations could begin around that time.

Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that a new round of negotiations will lead to any progress on the core issues that led to the stalemate in the first place. Some observers suggest that Trump’s personal letter to Kim proposed something important. However, most personal letters are written in fanciful language aimed at increasing trust between the two parties; they are not used to discuss specifics about ongoing negotiations. Trump’s letter likely expresses hope that the two countries should restart negotiations, but almost certainly lacks specifics about the core issue between the US and the DPRK: North Korea’s nuclear program.

XI Jinping made his first state visit to North Korea from June 20-21
XI Jinping made his first state visit to North Korea from June 20-21. Image: Rodong Sinmun

North Korea still blames the US for stalemate

During Xi’s visit to North Korea, Chinese media reported that North Korean leaders are being patient and still have a desire to continue dialogue with the US. This is important news because it suggests that North Korean leaders want to restart negotiations.

Kim Jong Un, however, still places blame on the US (the “related country”) for the current negotiations stalemate, regardless of what Chinese media says. Kim essentially argues that North Korea has taken active measures over the past year but that the US has not responded in kind. The US failure to do so has, in Kim’s view, led to the current stalemate. Kim has also failed to discuss whether North Korea will change its current stance so that negotiations can move forward. There’s no evidence that Kim has moved away from his stance that the US should take the first move before North Korea does anything.

While Trump’s intimation that the US will take a “flexible approach” could help restart negotiations, the US has not changed its basic stance that North Korea needs to show its willingness to completely denuclearize. In short, it’s not clear whether the US will accept the North Korean view that decommissioning the Yongbyon nuclear site is a sufficient concession.

This situation makes it difficult to think positively about whether recent bilateral moves to restart negotiations will be successful. Ultimately, it just appears like the two sides are aiming to create a one-off event, rather than smooth the road for substantive negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue.

In any case, both sides are moving enthusiastically to restarting negotiations. As to whether these laborious efforts to resuscitate them will lead to any real achievements remains to be seen.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.