Korean Service reporter Connie Kim in Washington contributed to this report
SEOUL - If North Korea soon resumes nuclear talks with the United States as promised, it could be entering the negotiations with an improved bargaining position following a summer of missile tests and a perception that the U.S. alliance structure in Northeast Asia has begun to weaken.
North Korea earlier this month offered to start “comprehensive discussions” with the United States by the end of the month, raising the possibility that long-delayed working level nuclear negotiations with Washington may soon begin.
Expounding on that offer, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry this week said a “discussion of denuclearization” may be possible following the removal of unspecified “threats and hurdles endangering our system and obstructing our development.”
The statement suggests Pyongyang intends to seek both security guarantees and sanctions relief from the United States at the upcoming negotiations, which it said are expected to begin in a “few weeks.”
“They are going into these working level talks with a very high demand,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, former executive director of IISS-Americas. “Their opening position is very maximalist. It's more maximalist than had been the case earlier in the year at Hanoi.”
A return to provocations
Nuclear talks broke down after a February summit in Vietnam between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended abruptly without a deal.
Trump rejected Kim’s offer to partially dismantle his nuclear program in exchange for a significant relaxation in sanctions.
Since then, North Korea has returned to a more confrontational posture — one that appears carefully calibrated to increase its negotiating position while avoiding major provocations that would upset the talks altogether.
Since May, North Korea has conducted ten rounds of ballistic missile tests. The newly developed short-range missiles are designed to evade U.S. and South Korean defenses, providing a new threat to U.S. forces and allies in the region.
Trump says he has “no problem” with the launches since they are short-range — an approach that risks establishing a precedent that North Korea may use to justify further ballistic missile tests, which it is banned from conducting under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
North Korea is also likely encouraged by recent developments outside its control — most notably the cracks that have appeared among U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia.
South Korea last month announced it would withdraw from a military intelligence sharing deal with Japan, after Tokyo imposed a series of trade restrictions on Seoul. U.S. officials say the withdrawal will complicate regional efforts to respond to North Korea.
The move also further strains the U.S. alliance with South Korea, which had already been challenged by Trump’s insistence that Seoul pay more for the cost of U.S. protection.
The upcoming round of U.S.-South Korea military cost-sharing negotiations is expected to be tense.
Last month, Trump appeared to preempt the negotiations when he tweeted South Korea had agreed to pay “substantially more money” for the cost of the U.S. military presence. Seoul shot back, saying cost-sharing talks hadn’t even yet begun.
Trump has also complained about U.S.-South Korea military exercises, recently calling the drills a “total waste of money.”
North Korea will likely try to take advantage of Trump’s dislike of the exercises during the upcoming talks, says Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst with NK News.
“At a minimum, Pyongyang will attempt to further scale down or even terminate the drills,” says Lee.
In recent months, North Korea has emphasized it wants security guarantees from the United States — a possible acknowledgement that Trump may be unwilling or unable to relax sanctions at this stage of the negotiations.
“I think Kim will be smart enough not to expect that the U.S. will relieve U.N. Security Council resolutions,” says Bong Young-shik with Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies.
In order to remove U.N. sanctions, Trump would need the support of the U.N. Security Council. To completely remove U.S. sanctions, he would need the approval of Congress.
Instead, Bong says North Korea may seek a more limited concession: the resumption of inter-Korean economic initiatives such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tours to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang resort.
As part of a counter offer, North Korea may offer to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, as it offered at the Hanoi summit, he adds. The Yongbyon complex is a major component of North Korea's nuclear program, though the North has other nuclear facilities.
“I assume the North Koreans will repeat the proposal that they made in Hanoi. I doubt there will be much variation in that proposal,” says Gary Samore, a former White House official who worked on arms control and weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea has repeatedly stated it has no intention of unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons without U.S. concessions. At times, North Korean officials have called for the U.S. to remove any nuclear threat, not only from the Korean Peninsula but also the wider region.
“It's the alliance, it's U.S. military forces in the region including forces stationed in South Korea as well as U.S. naval and air forces in the region,” says Samore. “From North Korea's standpoint all of that would have to be removed.”
President Trump has said several times over the past year he has no plans to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea. Even just a drawdown in U.S. forces would face a strong pushback from the U.S. Congress, which in 2018 passed legislation restricting such a drawdown.
But Trump has given little indication of what he is prepared to offer North Korea. That question may come up next week when Trump meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump has said he is interested in holding a fourth meeting with Kim. But this week, following a report that Kim had invited Trump to Pyongyang, the U.S. president said the timing is not right for such a visit.
"I think we have a ways to go yet," Trump said.