As North Korea reopens hotline with South, officials and experts have doubts

People watch a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

As North Korea reopened cross-border communications with South Korea Wednesday, leader Kim Jong Un’s newfound willingness to speak with the South has been greeted with reactions ranging from cautious optimism to deep skepticism in the U.S. and within the Trump administration.

In a New Year’s Day address Monday, Kim proposed improving relations with the South, suggesting that he may send athletes to February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. South Korean President Moon Jae-in responded promptly, offering high-level talks next week on Olympics participation and suggesting they revive a cross-border hotline that had been dormant since February 2016.

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“We will connect with the South with a sincere and diligent attitude,” North Korean official Ri Son-kwon said on state television Wednesday, adding, “We once again express our sincere hope that the Pyeongchang Olympics will be successful.”

Officials from the two countries spoke via the hotline in the border village of Panmunjom for about 20 minutes on Wednesday.

The overtures came after a year of rapidly rising tensions between North Korea and the outside world as the rogue regime tested ballistic missiles and nuclear materials in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, prompting harsh new sanctions from the U.N. and bombastic threats from U.S. President Donald Trump.

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," Trump said in August. "They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Despite the prospect of somewhat thawed relations with his southern neighbor, Kim’s New Year’s message remained obstinate on other matters, including a belligerent vow to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. if threatened.

“The United States can never fight a war against me and our state,” Kim said, boasting of weapons capabilities far beyond what experts believe he actually possesses. “It should properly know that the whole territory of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office, and this is just a reality, not a threat.”

By all accounts, Kim likely does not have such a button or the ability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons.

President Trump offered conflicting reactions to the latest developments in tweets Tuesday.

“Sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time,” he said in the morning. “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!”

Later that night, however, he lashed out at Kim over the size and strength of his “button,” claiming he has his own button that is “much bigger & more powerful.”

Trump also does not have such a button.

The president’s first tweet suggested he believes his policies have helped bring North Korea to the negotiating table, but a State Department spokesperson expressed doubt about Kim’s motives and the likelihood that talks will accomplish anything.

“Kim Jong Un may be trying to drive a wedge of some sort between the two nations, between our nation and the Republic of Korea,” spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday. “I can assure you that that will not happen, that will not occur. We are very skeptical of Kim Jong-un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks.”

According to Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a professor at Georgetown University, North Korea’s willingness to talk could be either evidence that Trump’s pressure is working or a gambit to secure sanctions relief, but there is still no indication Kim is prepared to make concessions on his weapons program.

“South Korea has been demanding these talks for some time and Kim Jong Un has refused, stipulating that he will only speak to the U.S. directly,” Kroenig said. “So, you have to ask: what has changed? And the answer is that the sanctions pressure is starting to build.”

Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, held the opposite view, that broaching negotiations could be a sign that Kim believes he has new leverage.

“North Korea has tested three ICBMs, demonstrating the capability to strike the U.S.,” she said. “I think that’s the change in the situation. That’s what they were driving to the whole time.”

While talks could prove fruitful, Bell emphasized that South Korea should be careful and cautious if it proceeds with this dialogue.

“I just think eyes wide open is probably the best way to say anyone should be looking at this,” she said.

Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also warned against embracing the latest developments as a breakthrough because these talks could weaken the resolve of allies as the U.S. attempts to maintain sanctions and diplomatic pressure. He noted that Kim’s speech Monday also included a call to “focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

“It’s an attempt to dangle something the South Koreans really want, which is a safe Olympics with North Korean participation, in exchange for not really focusing on the first half of that address,” he said.

Alternately, this dialogue could be quickly derailed by another missile test. U.S. officials have indicated the North is preparing for one and Kim’s birthday is next week. It is also possible the talks will never progress to nuclear issues.

“There’s also the scenario where this is nothing more than just a conversation about the Olympics,” Ruggiero said.

Trump’s button tweet inspired a mix of shock, outrage, and mockery from his U.S. critics, but it garnered no immediate public response from the North Koreans.

“Message to President Trump: you can't Mean Tweet us into a blundering war,” tweeted former Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “Wars require a vote of authorization by Congress, and we will stand up to you if your juvenile tweets carelessly put our country at risk.”

“Cadet Bone Spurs should worry more about the 35K US troops stationed in ROK who could be killed in a #NorthKorea nuclear strike&ensuing artillery duel than the relative size of his ‘nuclear button,’” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., in a tweet.

Bell sees no grand design behind Trump’s social media outbursts.

“Even if the Trump administration is able to craft a policy that they think is workable that will ensure the safety of our allies in the region…no matter how well-crafted and well thought out it is, it can be derailed at any moment by tweets from the president that seemingly contradict each other within a day,” she said.

Kroenig suggested Trump’s tweets generally do adhere to a strategy of diplomatic pressure and military deterrence. He believes those threats are treated as credible by Kim’s regime.

“People are often confused by what they see as mixed messages, but statements, or tweets, about sanctions pressure, diplomatic engagement, and military power are all part of a broader and coherent strategy,” he said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended the tweet Wednesday, telling reporters the president is standing up for the American people against Kim’s threats and dismissing questions raised by some critics about Trump’s mental state.

“The people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea,” she said.

Like other presidents before him, Trump has declared an unwillingness to accept a nuclear North Korea. Like other presidents before him, though, he has so far been unable to stop Pyongyang from advancing its weapons program and testing missiles.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley again drew that red line Tuesday.

"North Korea can talk with anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have," she said.

Kroenig distinguished between North Korea becoming a nuclear state and the U.S. accepting North Korea as one.

“The United States will not sign any kind of agreement granting Pyongyang's nuclear status or the legal right to possesses nuclear weapons under international law. The United States will also work to roll back the DPRK's existing nuclear capabilities,” he said, “So, by these definitions, it is still the case that we do not accept a nuclear North Korea.”

He still sees disarmament as a plausible outcome if severe sanctions succeed in crippling the North Korean economy and unrest grows among Kim’s allies within the regime.

“Kim believes nuclear weapons guarantee his survival,” he said. “The key to forcing him to give them up is to make him believe that holding on to nuclear weapons might also threaten his survival.”

Ruggiero argued the U.S. cannot deny the current reality of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but denuclearizing the regime must remain the goal.

“I think this suggestion that we can either live with a nuclear North Korea or we can fall back and rely on deterrence is flawed,” he said.

North Korea has posed a grave threat to its neighbors even without being recognized as a nuclear power. It could become even more dangerous if the U.S. and its allies concede its nuclear capabilities. Ruggiero fears such recognition would also embolden Iran to advance its own nuclear program.

“If they see world community agreeing to accept North Korean nuclear weapons…I think the Iranians would want an accelerated timeframe and want that same deal,” he said.

He suggested a firm commitment to denuclearization from Kim, if not actual steps toward dismantling the program, must be a precondition for any serious negotiations. However, Bell cautioned that the Trump administration’s hardline stance on an issue North Korea has deemed nonnegotiable could drive further division with South Korea.

“It’s such a narrow space to say you’re basing your negotiations on the idea that you will get everything you want up front,” she said.

As the U.S. and its allies seek a peaceful diplomatic resolution to this standoff and Kim Jong Un maneuvers to protect his power, Bell doubts President Trump’s tweets are helping.

“No one is going to out-Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un,” she said. “That regime has been saying provocative and borderline crazy things for years upon years…. I don’t think matching that provocative messaging furthers our goals.”

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