SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA —
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Tuesday appeared to postpone a plan to fire missiles toward Guam, a move that could help defuse the potential for imminent conflict, and give new momentum to reported behind the scenes efforts underway to find a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
President Donald Trump’s harsh warning last week that the United States would respond to any North Korean threat with “fire and fury” set off a flurry of confrontational rhetoric from both sides. The North Korean People’s Army pushed back saying preparations were underway to launch a missile over Japan to land near the U.S. territory of Guam. Trump said the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” and ready to respond to any attack on its territories.
On Tuesday, the North Korean leader was quoted by the KCNA state media outlet saying he will wait and see “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous, reckless actions” before going forward with the missile test targeting the Guam area.
Kim also urged the United States to “show through actions if they wish to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and prevent a dangerous military clash,” according to the KCNA report.
A possible opening for diplomacy comes amid reports that the Trump administration has been engaged in back channel talks with North Korea.
President Trump has used confrontational rhetoric emphasizing U.S. willingness to use force if necessary to prevent the Kim government from developing a long-range nuclear missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, but he has also indicated support for more direct talks.
The Associated Press has reported that Ambassador Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, has been involved in ongoing discussions with Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s U.N. mission. The two envoys reportedly first engaged in negotiating the release of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier two months ago. Warmbier fell into a coma while in North Korean custody and died soon after returning home.
Lowering the bar
And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to drop a key precondition set by former President Barack Obama that Pyongyang first commit to denuclearization before any talks can occur. Instead, at the recent ASEAN security summit in the Philippines, Tillerson indicated the U.S. would be open to talks if North Korea merely stopped the missile launches.
“The United States has actually lowered the bar by saying that the best evidence North Korea is serious about diplomatic negotiations is to stop missile tests,” said political analyst Bong Young-shik with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies.
Advocates for diplomacy see hopeful signs in the Trump administration’s willingness to talk without rigid preconditions.
John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, said the United States should send a high level envoy to Pyongyang, officially to negotiate the release of two Americans still being held by North Korea, as Canada recently did.
“North Korea just released a Canadian citizen when a security adviser to the Canadian prime minister visited Pyongyang. So it could be a hint, sort of a model to get us out of this game of chicken,” Delury said.
South Korea veto
Without directly naming his U.S ally, South Korean President Moon Jae-in Tuesday asserted his veto power over any decision to use military force in the country or launching an attack against North Korea.
“Only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula. And without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action,” Moon said during an address commemorating the anniversary of the end of World War II.
Moon also reassured Pyongyang that Seoul does not seek the collapse of the Kim regime or the unification of the Korean Peninsula through force or “absorption,” and renewed calls for dialogue and cooperation.
“Despite the ups and downs, the North Korea nuclear issue must be resolved peacefully,” he said.
President Moon has so far been frustrated in his efforts to both increase engagement with Pyongyang and support strong U.S.-led sanctions and military deterrence. North Korea has so far rejected offers of humanitarian aid, and increased cooperation on reunions for families separated by the division of the country.
“There is a growing recognition inside the Moon Jae-in government that South Korea’s independent capability to dictate the U.S. security conditions on the Korean Peninsula is severely limited,” said the Yonsei University analyst Bong Young-shik.
With international sanctions preventing Moon from restarting economic aid and joint ventures, the South Korean leader has few incentives to entice the North.
For now analysts say Washington and Pyongyang remain the central figures in this standoff, and while the confrontation over Guam may have been deferred, military options remain both a threat and leverage in possible negotiations.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.