US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: Reuters / Aaron P. Bernstein

Just two weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared that his latest missile test marked the completion of his state’s nuclear arms program, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the United States is ready to talk to North Korea without any of the customary American preconditions.

“We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk,” Tillerson told Washington’s Atlantic Council on Tuesday. “We are ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”

There have long been assumptions among North Korean watchers that Kim may be prepared to enter substantive negotiations with the United States once he has finalized his strategic arms programs. After the November 27 heft of a Hwasong-15 ballistic missile to a height of 4,475 kilometers (2,800 miles), indicating a capability to strike any part of the mainland United States, Kim said – according to state media – that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”

While some analysts maintain that Pyongyang’s strategic weapons still require testing of a missile re-entry vehicle, targeting systems and possibly even an atmospheric, rather than underground, nuclear test, Kim’s statement of program completion was, according to one expert, at least, a signal to the United States.

“That was an open call – an invitation to the US to talk to them,” said North Korea watcher Go Myong-hyun of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “I think North Korea definitely wants to talk, that is my read after the latest test: they were waiting for the opportunity to start a dialog.”

Against this backdrop, Tillerson’s extension of an olive branch appears to be timely: a statesmanlike (or desperate) move to kick-start talks. The previous US precondition for talks with North Korea had been an insistence that Pyongyang commit to denuclearization.

Given the resources Pyongyang has sunk into its nuclear and missile programs and the international opprobrium it has suffered during their development, in addition to the fact that it has written nuclear possession into its constitution, few, if any, North Korea experts believe Kim would agree totally denuclearize under any circumstance. However, some believe that Pyongyang might be willing to freeze nuclear and/or missile tests and accept international monitors in return for concessions from the United States and the international community.

“I think North Korea definitely wants to talk, that is my read after the latest test: they were waiting for the opportunity to start a dialog”

So are Washington and Pyongyang primed to engage in jaw-jaw instead of war-war?

“I am not sure if Kim is willing to talk, but that statement implies he might be,” said Andray Abrahamian, a visiting fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, of Kim’s “program completion” comment. “Talks without preconditions are low risk at this point for him.”

Inevitably, however, there are snags. President Donald Trump has undermined Tillerson, and even ridiculed moves to negotiate with North Korea. So, Kim could be awaiting an explicit endorsement of his secretary of state’s offer from Trump himself, Go speculated.

And if talks get underway – Tillerson said he is willing to talk about anything including the weather and the shape of the negotiating table – there is a strong chance that the North Koreans will push their own long-term agenda to the forefront.

“North Korea is always willing to talk about what they want to talk about – lifting sanctions, being recognized as a nuclear state, terminating the 1953 armistice for a peace treaty, terminating the South Korean bilateral security treaty with the US – they will talk day, tonight, tomorrow,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University. “Their policy goals and objectives have not changed.”

Further muddying the waters is Tillerson’s future as America’s chief diplomat.

“What motivated the State Department to do this?” asked James Kim, also at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “Is it their acceptance of the inevitable, or a last-ditch effort by Tillerson before he is replaced, or is this the Trump administration testing to see if North Korea wants to talk at all?”

Regardless of American motivation, various stars seem to be aligning.

“North Korea is always willing to talk about… lifting sanctions, being recognized as a nuclear state, terminating the 1953 armistice for a peace treaty, terminating the South Korean bilateral security treaty with the US”

China has called for a “freeze for a freeze” – ie a halt to US military drills on the peninsula in return for a halt in North Korean nuclear and missile tests. Seoul has requested that Washington suspend scheduled Korea-US military exercises prior to the Winter Olympics, which are due to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, from February 9-25. South Korea is also hoping for a last-minute decision by the North Koreans to participate in the Games. And, as reported by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, the top US nuclear envoy, Joseph Yun, and North Korean Foreign Ministry officials are expected to attend an international security meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this week, indicating a possible sideline meeting.

“Maybe there is a window now, especially if the International Olympic Committee can get the North Koreans to participate in Pyeongchang, that would suggest that everyone can work for a ‘pause for a pause,’ not exactly a ‘freeze for a freeze,’ and a toning down of ROK-US exercises in the spring, in return for North Korea not only not testing more missiles, but also toning down or not conducting their winter exercises as well,” said Abrahamian. “I still think the ‘freeze for a freeze’ looks like too much of a loss for the Americans, but maybe now there is time to explore some other options.”

All this indicates North Korea-US talks – in some format, in some forum – may be on the horizon. And Kim may stake out his position on the first day of the coming year.

“Kim is going to give a New Year speech on Jan. 1,” said Go. “So, they might wait until then to formulate a response and that is a good strategy for them – to wait to see if Trump confirms or denies.”

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