A secret meeting between North Korea and the United States fell apart just hours before it was scheduled to happen — adding to the tension between Washington and Pyongyang.
That’s according to the Washington Post, which reported that North Korea pulled out two hours before a planned February 10 discussion between Vice President Mike Pence and top Pyongyang officials — including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong. That meeting was planned to take place on the sidelines of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
It’s still unclear exactly why North Korea bowed out of the meeting, although North Koreans did say they were unhappy with Pence’s announcement of new sanctions on Pyongyang and Pence’s meeting with North Korean defectors. The State Department said the cancellation took the US by surprise. “At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting,” Heather Nauert, State’s top spokesperson, said in a statement, using an acronym for North Korea’s official name. “We regret their failure to seize this opportunity.”
But the fact that it was arranged in the first place raises two questions. First, what did the US and North Korea plan to discuss at this meeting? And second, why is it so hard for America to even talk with North Korea?
Experts tell me the answer to both questions is essentially the same: the lack of flexibility on both sides. Washington and Pyongyang remain locked in a diplomatic stalemate. For example, North Korea wants America to stop its military drills with South Korea, but those are likely to restart before April. North Korea also wants to improve its nuclear program, and the US wants it to dismantle its arsenal.
In the past, Trump and previous US administrations have signaled they would not talk with North Korea until it agreed beforehand to negotiate the end of its nuclear program. But during his trip to the Olympics, Pence steadily dropped hints about the administration’s potential willingness to sit down with the North Koreans face to face.
Had the meeting happened, both sides likely would have tried to see if the other would budge on their sticking points. The problem is that neither party has succeeded in doing this, despite decades of on-again, off-again negotiations. That means it’s unlikely that much good would have immediately come out of any discussion.
And that throws the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy — where America imposes harsh sanctions on North Korea to compel it to negotiate the end of its nuclear program — into question.
“While some may say the pressure game is working,” Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University, said in an interview, “the question is: working toward what?”
What were Pence and the North Koreans hoping to accomplish?
Experts believe both sides likely would have come to the meeting with fixed positions.
“Pence’s main goal was to underscore for the North Koreans how much the United States is committed to continuing maximum pressure, regardless of what happens between the two Koreas,” Mintaro Oba, a former Obama State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs, told me.
Pyongyang “would probably have emphasized that North Korea’s nuclear program is a done deal and the United States should accept that,” Oba continued.
That’s why Robert Manning, a Koreas expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me he thought the meeting would be exploratory in nature — to see if either side would be willing to give an inch. That was unlikely to happen, experts said, but they also noted that there were other potential reasons for the meeting — and for its cancellation.
It’s possible that Pence would have tried to secure the release of the three American hostages in North Korea, Manning said. One of them, Kim Dong-chul, has been in North Korea since 2015. The other two — Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song — were arrested in 2017. It’s believed they’re all being held in North Korean prisons, which are known for their horrible conditions.
The Trump administration is highly attuned to hostage issues. The White House still cares deeply about Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old US citizen who died in a coma after sustaining horrific brain injuries while spending 17 months in a North Korean prison.
Pence invited Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, as his guest to the Olympics, and President Trump spoke about Otto during the State of the Union address. (Otto’s parents say he was “systematically tortured” to death, a charge North Korea denies. A coroner last September found no obvious signs of torture.)
But another possibility is that North Korea never intended to sit down for a face-to-face meeting at all. “The North Koreans may have fully expected from the start to cancel and blame it on Pence’s behavior,” Oba told me, “perhaps hoping that would upset [South Korean] President Moon and widen the gap between the United States and South Korea.”
Pence had doubled down on aggressive rhetoric at the start of his trip to Asia, announcing the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions ever against Pyongyang for its nuclear program. And then there was the awkward cold shoulder he gave Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong during the Olympic opening ceremonies — despite the meeting scheduled for the next morning.
Plus, experts believe North Korea’s real goal is to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. Trump time and time again has denigrated the need to talk with the North. Moon, meanwhile, met with Kim Yo Jong in Seoul on February 9. During that meeting, she invited the South Korean president to meet Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. The North-South meeting showed that North Korea was more willing to engage its southern neighbor than the US, leading to tensions between Seoul and Washington over how best to handle relations with Pyongyang.
But Town, the North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins, thinks it’s also possible that North Korea told the truth when it cited Pence’s decision to announce new sanctions as the reason for canceling the meeting. If true, it would mean the Trump administration sabotaged the chance to make diplomatic progress with the Kim regime.
“Add it to a list of missed opportunities,” Town told me.
Why diplomacy with North Korea is so hard
For months, top Trump officials have said the administration would prefer to settle its tensions with North Korea diplomatically — but Trump himself seemed against the idea until now.
“While diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action, it is backed by military options,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last August. “The US is willing to negotiate with Pyongyang. But given the long record of North Korea’s dishonesty in negotiations and repeated violations of international agreements, it is incumbent upon the regime to signal its desire to negotiate in good faith.”
Last December, Tillerson took attempts at dialogue a step further during a speech at the Atlantic Council think tank about the Trump administration’s first year in office. “We’ve said from the diplomatic side we’re ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” he said. “Can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?”
But Trump has undermined diplomatic outreach to North Korea several times. Just hours after Tillerson’s remarks, the White House abruptly put out a statement saying, “The President’s views on North Korea have not changed.” In other words, the US would not sit down with Pyongyang until it agreed to consider ending its nuclear program.
Sometimes Trump changes his tune — last month, he told South Korea’s president that he’d chat with North Korea’s leader “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances.” And, of course, Trump approved Pence’s potential meeting with North Korean officials. But overall, he remains skeptical of diplomatic talks with North Korea — and there are reasons for that skepticism.
The US and other countries have been trying to come to a diplomatic, negotiated agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program since 1985, according to the Arms Control Association.
They got really close twice. In 1994, the US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, in which the North agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors and fuel oil from the United States.
But the agreement collapsed in 2002, and by January 2003, the North had resumed its nuclear program.
Then in August 2003, the international community launched the so-called “Six Party Talks,” designed to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program through negotiations with five other countries: China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
Two years later, in September 2005, it looked like the talks might work — North Korea formally agreed to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” in exchange for energy assistance from the other countries.
Yet in 2009, amid disagreements over technical details related to verification, North Korea walked out on the talks. It said it would never return to the negotiations and maintains that it is no longer bound by their agreements. Pyongyang has been ramping up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs ever since.
“North Korea is smarter than we are,” Manning, of the Atlantic Council, told me. “They play a really bad hand exceptionally well.”
And that’s where we are today: a diplomatic stalemate with no end in sight. Worse, it’s more than likely this opening “could easily be derailed if the North tests something,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale University, told me on February 12, “or, from Pyongyang’s perspective, probably if we resume military exercises.”
So it’s not guaranteed that any US-North Korea communication will lead to a lasting peace — but it couldn’t hurt, according to Rapp-Hooper. “Diplomacy is still worthwhile if it lowers the risk of miscalculation,” she said.
But both sides actually have to talk in order for that risk to go down.