South Korea’s Yonhap news service reported on Wednesday that North Korea made a very tentative and conditional offer to discuss a ban on nuclear and ballistic missile testing.
The offer came rather circuitously through North Korea’s ambassador to India, and there were strings attached, but given how stridently the outlaw regime normally insists on its right to develop weapons, it may foreshadow a more significant policy shift.
Yonhap renders Ambassador Kye Chun-yong’s offer as, “If our demands is met, we can negotiate in terms of the moratorium of such as weapons testing,” and notes the conditions unsurprisingly include a halt to American military drills with South Korea, a demand North Korea makes incessantly.
Australia’s News.com notes that Kye conducted his interview on Indian television in English, quoting him directly to make the strings on North Korea’s offer clearly visible:
Under certain circumstances, we are willing to talk in terms of the freezing of nuclear testing and missile testing. For instance, if the American side completely stopped big, large-scale military exercises temporarily or permanently, then we will also temporarily stop. Let’s talk about how to solve the Korean issue peacefully.
Pyongyang temporarily slowing its illegal weapons research in exchange for a permanent and total end to American military cooperation with South Korea is not exactly a tantalizing offer. It is most likely just a setup for the next round of North Korean complaints that Seoul and Washington are responsible for instability on the peninsula because they keep practicing the invasion of North Korea.
International outrage over the murder of American hostage Otto Warmbier did not slow down North Korean state media’s stream of editorials denouncing Western policy as “aggression and plunder,” or criticizing America’s human rights record. Moreover, it is hard to see Pyongyang’s ambassador to India as a pipeline to the deep thoughts of the Kim regime’s inner circle. There are other channels Pyongyang could use if it wishes to seriously resume discussions about its nuclear and missile programs.
As Yonhap News points out, even if Pyongyang did agree to a temporary moratorium, it has very elastic notions of what “temporary” means. The last freeze deal in 2012, in which the U.S. provided 240,000 tons of food aid in exchange for a halt to missile tests and uranium enrichment, lasted about two months before North Korea broke it.
Still, North Korea’s insistence on its right to develop nuclear weapons and ICBMs is normally absolute, presented as the only defense available to the noble DPRK against Western and South Korean aggression.
Optimistic observers hope the international outrage over Warmbier’s death, and President Trump’s aggressive stance toward the Kim regime, are pressuring Kim toward offering a more serious deal. Trump’s ominous tweet on Tuesday thanking China for an effort to rein in North Korea that “has not worked out” may be weighing on a few minds in Pyongyang and/or Beijing.
There is also the possibility that North Korea is having trouble with its long-rumored sixth nuclear test and is floating talk of negotiations to squeeze some concessions from the threat of a bomb it cannot actually detonate. U.S. officials on Tuesday reported seeing signs of activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site again, the latest in a string of such observations stretching back for months, without any test detonation actually occurring.
Another factor shifting against North Korea is the growing international scrutiny of dictator Kim Jong-un’s finances. North Korea relies heavily upon illegal commerce to bring in the money needed to keep the corpulent dictator and his inner circle living in unfathomable luxury, while much of the population starves. A new MIT study crunched U.N. data to determine that North Korea spends more on luxury goods than it does on legal imports from all sources.
If North Korea’s enablers grow exasperated enough or are pressured hard enough to cut off that illegal income stream and choke off the billion-dollar flow of expensive luxuries and banned weapon components to the Pyongyang elite, it could bring some real pain to the regime for the first time. Awareness of that danger might help explain the very tentative opening to negotiations North Korea’s ambassador made in India.