North Korea is softening its hard line, ever so slightly, in recent days and weeks and that in large measure is thanks to China’s slapping down, firmly, its annoying neighbor and Pyongyang’s greenhorn dictator, Kim Jong Un.
At talks in Brunei on Tuesday with other Asian foreign ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly praised China for its “very firm statements and very firm steps” insisting that Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons and get back to Six-Party talks on denuclearization that broke down in 2009. At the same time, Russia, a member of the Six Party talks, invited a senior North Korean diplomat to Moscow this week to receive the message that the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea were all united in urging the North to resume the talks.
Even the North Korean Foreign Minister, Pak Eui-chun, held a rare press conference in Brunei, in which, in addition to predictable denouncements of U.S. aggression, indicated again, as it has in recent weeks, that it would meet the U.S. without preconditions. This comes after North Korea last month offered to rejoin the international nuclear disarmament talks and a crucial late June meeting when new Chinese President Xi Jinping met with new South Korean President Park Geun-hye. In a pointed snub, Xi has not yet met with Kim Jong Un.
This is a significant change after the tensions from February to April this year, following the North’s February nuclear test, its third in the past seven years. At one point during the bluster of that time, Pyongyang urged all foreign diplomats to leave its capital, warning that war with the U.S. could be imminent. And President Obama deployed additional warships to waters off South Korea and F-22 fighters to war games with Seoul.
We’re a long way from that now.
The North started its climb down in May, and last month North and South Korea were ready to sit down to talk about reopening the Kaesong industrial zone in North Korea, and the tourist zone on the North’s east coast, Mount Kumgang, both of which are operated by South Korean companies using North Korean employees. The two zones, which are a huge source of needed foreign currency for the North, were closed by Pyongyang amid the escalating tensions earlier this year. The June talks collapsed at the last minute, however, when the North said the delegation from the South was not senior enough.
But even the talk about talks is a long way from April and that’s a tribute to quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy from the Obama administration and Kerry, to patience and forbearance toward the North by the United States, and a firm decision by Seoul and Washington not to be blackmailed or to overact to the nuclear and missile rattling by Pyongyang.
Obama has had particularly good relations with South Korea since he took office, with both of its presidents, Lee Myung-Bak, and the new female chief executive Park. South Korean diplomats in Washington consistently praise the Obama administration for listening to them closely, acting together, and not taking the bait thrown out by North Korea.
North Korea will not disappear anytime soon; China doesn’t want a unified, economically rich, pro-Western Korea on its border. But even the Chinese seem to be fed up with the unending cycle of provocations from the North. That, and the Obama administration’s deft refusal to buckle under to the North’s threats means that there’s at least a reasonable chance the Six Party talks on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula could resume in coming months.
Sure, the North likes to throw a wrench just when things seem to be going well, but for now, it seems that Kim Jong Un lost his first sparring match with Washington, and more importantly with Beijing.