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Hope for US-North Korea talks?

Shift in thought

Hints and events are lining up for possible negotiations and a lessening of fear of war in Northeast Asia.

This image provided by the North Korean government Nov. 30 shows leader Kim Jong Un, third from left, and what the government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile.
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

As it has done many times, the United Nations Security Council will again take up the issue of North Korea’s nuclear threat on Dec. 15. The meeting comes less than three weeks after North Korea fired a rocket that seems capable of striking the mainland United States. If past were prologue, not much might come of this latest gathering.

Yet, instead of an atmosphere of more threats and counter-threats, diplomats are speculating that the US and North Korea may be ready to trade brinkmanship for “blinkmanship.” They might be ready to negotiate after years of estrangement, if only to “talk about talks”?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at such a possibility a few days ago by saying the US is open to unconditional talks. “Let’s just meet. We can talk about the weather if you want,” he said. And Jeffrey Feltman, the UN political affairs chief, returned from a trip to Pyongyang saying, “I think we’ve left the door ajar” to a negotiated solution.

The reasons for such hope keep piling up. The US appears satisfied that it has arranged very tough sanctions against the regime of Kim Jong-un and that its allies, along with China, have formed a solid front. At the same time, Mr. Kim declared that the latest missile test marked the completion of his country’s nuclear arms program – even though it has not demonstrated all technical aspects of a nuclear and missile capability.

In addition, both sides may have a face-saving opportunity coming up that will allow them to show they are open to compromise.

The US and South Korea are considering delaying a scheduled joint military exercise scheduled for February during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Such a delay, while only a gesture, may be enough for North Korea to reciprocate with a temporary freeze on its nuclear program. If that happens, then this “freeze for a freeze” trade could be an initial step in creating enough trust for serious talks.

While such a scenario seems far-fetched given the rhetoric on both sides, it is necessary for the world to support it. Fears of a war in Northeast Asia keep rising.

Both sides may now realize that not talking will no longer serve as a form of pressure or punishment. And that more sanctions or more military enhancements will do little. Blinking together and opening talks could be the right course.

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