Tensions have been running high recently, with signs of impending conflict hard to avoid. The US demand for North Korea to dismantle the nuclear program as a prerequisite for negotiation process led the situation into an impasse.
It may not be in spotlight but the change of policy is obvious. The recent remarks made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are signs that prospects for talks may be looming at the horizon while the balancing on the brink of war may be coming to an end. It may be a start of preparing the public opinion for peace talks where Moscow could play a prominent role.
The top diplomat offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without pre-conditions. He obviously backed away from the demand that Pyongyang must first give up the nuclear potential. “Let’s just meet,” the secretary said in a speech to Washington’s Atlantic Council think tank on December 12. According to him, the United States was “ready to talk any time they’re ready to talk”, but there would first have to be a “period of quiet” without nuclear and missile tests.
The White House later issued an ambiguous statement, dodging a clear answer to the question whether President Donald Trump approved the Tillerson’s stance or not. "The President's views on North Korea have not changed. North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
In October, President Trump undercut Tillerson, calling his effort to open lines of communication with North Korea a waste of time, and seeming to rule out a diplomatic resolution to the confrontation. It was different this time. The White House avoided saying openly it disagreed.
In his speech at the Atlantic Council, Secretary Tillerson also informed that the US was in talks with China about how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a collapse of the government in Pyongyang. He said Beijing had been given assurances that if US forces had to cross into North Korea they would pull back across the border into the South. The secretary would not make it public without the approval of the president.
The readiness for talks means the abandonment of previous policy. And there are reasons to substantiate the need to change it.
Everything has its limits and China appears to have done everything it could. It can go just that far. There is hardly a chance more sanctions could be approved by the UN Security Council – Russia and China will not go along. Moscow warned it was not ready to go further.
President Trump is trying to shift the attention from the “Russia probe” to other burning issues and he has a chance. The tax reform bill has just passed Congress to strengthen his position. The decision to recognize Jerusalem is the start of a new game in the Middle East. The decision was applauded by many of his critics. The time is right for a diplomatic breakthrough in Asia Pacific to raise the president’s ratings.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are drawing near. The continuation of hostile rhetoric and demonstrations of military power put the games in jeopardy. Clearly, the US wouldn’t like to be seen as a power that spoiled the long-awaited event. The North Korean leadership has stated it has completed its nuclear program. It could make a pause, suspending missile tests.
At the beginning, tentative talks could be launched clandestinely in Moscow or Beijing. Then the negotiation process could become official to include Russia, the US, North Korea, China, Japan and South Korea. It does not matter whether the talks would start before or after the Olympic Games, the main thing is to lunch the process.
On December 13, Moscow welcomed a new US offer of talks with North Korea, with senior Russian officials calling it constructive and the "only correct approach" to tension over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. Russia is perfectly positioned to be a mediator. It’s not a military ally of Pyongyang but North Korea trusts it. North Korean leadership knows Moscow will not promote American interests. The US has experience of working side by side with Russia to reach an agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Washington knows well Russia is interested in success of the diplomatic effort. After all, this country is a North Korea’s neighbor; evidently, it does not want a military nuclear conflict to occur in the vicinity of its borders.
If Russia and the US interact on North Korea, they may step by step extend this cooperation on other areas, such as the Middle East and arms control.
It’s hard to imagine North Korea giving up the nuclear weapons but it could introduce a moratorium on developing and testing new nuclear and ballistic missile systems as part of a broader US-North Korean deal or even a comprehensive treaty. When the North Korean tests and US responses no longer hit headlines, we’ll know a nuclear war is not on the doorstep anymore.