For weeks, Vice President Mike Pence had secretly prepared for what appeared a historic opportunity — the highest level meeting between the U.S. government and North Korea since President Clinton welcomed a visiting vice marshal to the White House in October 2000.
Pence had attended the Winter Olympic opening ceremonies on Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the next morning in his hotel, he hammered out final terms of the meeting he expected to hold that day with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister and other high-ranking aides, according to two White House officials.
Pence planned to say in private what he had declared in public — that the White House would maintain harsh economic restrictions on Pyongyang until its leaders showed concrete signs of ending their nuclear program.
But the North Koreans backed out two hours before the scheduled meeting, apparently irked by Pence’s discussions the previous day with defectors from the totalitarian state, and his announcement of harsh new sanctions en route to South Korea.
When it came to light, the cancellation seemed an embarrassing setback for the White House. But a month later, with South Korea’s announcement Tuesday that Kim Jong Un had offered to freeze his nuclear and missile tests to engage in talks with the U.S., the events have taken on a more positive light.
While the motivations of North Korea’s reclusive leaders remain opaque, it appears possible that toughened sanctions and President Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy — his mix of crude insults, nuclear threats and a sprinkling of overtures — may have helped bring Kim’s government back to the negotiating table.
Kim could still end up getting the upper hand, using the grinding pace of diplomacy — as his late father, Kim Jong Il, did before him — as a smokescreen while he gets closer to building a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the continental United States. U.S. officials say that goal could be just months away.
Trump said Tuesday that he’d “like to be optimistic” but that he’s still prepared to “go whichever path is necessary.”
His predecessors — Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama — should have fixed the problem, he said. “That was the time to have settled this problem, not now,” he said. “But we are settling it.”
Despite the president’s optimism, officials in the White House were skeptical North Korea would follow through.
“Take a deep breath,” a senior administration official said Tuesday. “Keep in mind that we have a long history — about 27 years of history of talking to North Koreans — and there is also a 27-year history of them breaking every agreement they’ve ever made with the United States and the international community.”
If North Korea’s plan is to use the talks to secretly expand its nuclear arsenal, the talks won’t get very far, the official said. “Because we’ve seen that movie before. We’ve seen it several times, and we’re not about to make the latest sequel with a very bad ending.”
A South Korean delegation will visit Washington this week to brief the administration on North Korea’s overture, and U.S. officials will talk to their counterparts in Japan about a coordinated approach.
“Many didn’t think this day would come, where we would be at this point,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters before she warned that nothing was yet confirmed.
After a year in which Trump and Kim Jong Un traded crude insults, the North Korean ruler unexpectedly created a diplomatic opening in a New Year’s Day speech, when he offered to send a North Korean delegation to the Olympics and to “alleviate the tensions” with South Korea.
In that same speech, however, Kim said his missiles could reach the U.S. mainland and “the nuclear button is always” on his desk. Trump fired back on Twitter, writing that he has a “much bigger” and “more powerful” nuclear button.
Despite the exchange, Trump told reporters at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., a few days later that he “absolutely” would be willing to talk to Kim without preconditions. “I have no problem with that at all,” he said.
That signal appeared to reach Pyongyang.
Soon after, the CIA presented a secret message to the White House that South Korea’s government was willing to broker a meeting between Pence and the North Korean delegation attending the Winter Olympics.
As a sign of goodwill, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to temporarily lift human rights sanctions against Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong so she could travel to the opening ceremonies.
During the ceremonies, Pence and the North Korean delegation sat near one another in the stands but did not shake hands or publicly acknowledge each other, suggesting the deep freeze in relations was holding.
But a secret meeting had been scheduled for Pence and Kim’s sister the next day, a Saturday, at the Blue House, the executive office and official residence of the South Korean president, in Seoul.
Instead, the North Korean officials apparently were unhappy with Pence’s vow to impose new sanctions, and despite hours of back and forth with Pence’s Chief of Staff Nick Ayers, they canceled the meeting.
This past Saturday night, Trump appeared to signal that talks were back on track. “We will be meeting, and we’ll see if anything positive happens,” Trump told journalists at a white-tie dinner in Washington.
At the time, officials said Trump was referring to South Korean efforts to get the North Koreans and the U.S. into talks, but said that nothing had been scheduled.
The breakthrough didn’t come until South Korea’s intelligence chief and top national security official returned to Seoul on Tuesday from a meeting with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. For the first time, they said, he was prepared to freeze his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Several U.S. experts said the tightening economic sanctions, which the U.S. contends have cut 90% of the country’s exports income, had pushed North Korea to consider talks.
“The threat of force may be a factor, but it is clear that economic pressure has had impact,” said William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former veteran diplomat.
But current and former U.S. officials also urged caution in regarding Kim’s offer.
“What we do know about North Korea ... is that past offers of dialogue frequently prove to be a fig leaf for ulterior purposes,” said Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief for the Koreas,
The State Department was caught somewhat flat-footed by the move. The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Joseph Yun, resigned last month over concerns that the White House was considering a preemptive attack, leaving a gaping hole in Trump administration efforts to talk to Kim’s representatives.
The acting assistant secretary for Asia, Susan Thornton, is the highest ranking specialist but her appointment to the permanent position remains in limbo. The White House nominee to become U.S. ambassador to South Korea was forced to withdraw from consideration after he reportedly voiced opposition to Trump’s suggestions of a military strike on North Korea.
For his part, Trump believes his strategy has paid off. Standing next to Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven during a news conference Tuesday, Trump gave credit to China, North Korea’s closest ally, for being “a big help” in putting pressure on Pyongyang.
Trump said he hoped the North Koreans were serious about talking. “I hope they’re sincere,” he said. “We’re going to soon find out.”
Times staff writers Christi Parsons and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.
Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 6, 2018