THE speed with which Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, has developed missiles, now believed to be capable of hitting America, has been startling. Since the start of the year, the pace of diplomacy with the rogue state has been similarly rapid. On March 6th South Korean envoys returned from meeting Mr Kim in his capital, Pyongyang, with a message for America. He is willing, they said, to sit down and talk, even about denuclearising the Korean peninsula—an American condition for talks that North Korea had rejected just days before. The North has not contradicted the South Korean statement, although its media talk of “open-hearted” talks without mentioning denuclearisation.
The southern delegation’s two-day visit came hot on the heels of North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang, during which northern officials met Moon Jae-in, the South’s president. This week the two sides agreed to hold a summit next month between Mr Moon and Mr Kim. The two leaders will also set up a hotline.
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Chung Eui-yong, Mr Moon’s national-security adviser, said Mr Kim had been exceptionally flexible, promising not to test any missiles during negotiations. Nor did he demand a suspension of joint military exercises by America and South Korea. It is striking that Mr Kim has agreed to meet on the South Korean side of the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas, whereas past South Korean leaders were forced to go to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il, Mr Kim’s father.
The North Korean leader was also exceptionally hospitable. He wined and dined the envoys at the headquarters of the Workers’ Party, no less. His mysterious wife, Ri Sol Ju, was present too.
Some explain Mr Kim’s sudden overture as a response to President Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, which has involved heightening both rhetoric and sanctions against the regime. (When asked why Mr Kim had made his offer, Mr Trump answered “Me”). “Mr Kim wants to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula after last year,” says Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think-tank.
Others deny that North Korea is offering to talk from a position of weakness. After all, Mr Kim has almost, but not quite, perfected a nuclear missile that can hit America—the point where he would have maximum leverage over Mr Trump. Most see the overture as a stratagem. North Korea has reneged on every deal it has ever signed. Most recently, in 2009, it backed out of an agreement struck in 2005 that offered it security guarantees, electricity from the South and other economic benefits in exchange for dismantling its nuclear programme. “Two words: Dad’s playbook”, Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst, tweeted.
Indeed, North Korea’s offer to discuss denuclearisation came on the condition that “military threats against the North are resolved and the regime is secure.” In the past North Korea has suggested it will not consider itself safe until America scraps its alliances with South Korea and Japan, and removes all its forces from the region—steps America would not countenance.
There is “no way in hell” that Mr Kim will give up his nuclear weapons, says Brad Glosserman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an American think-tank, who thinks he is simply after money, a reduction of pressure and the prestige that comes with dialogue with America. Nuclear weapons are written into North Korea’s constitution and Mr Kim seems to see them as essential to his survival. Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean daily, cautioned that the last time North Korea promised to denuclearise, it was a “deceiving stunt” used to “fool the world”.
America has been cautious. Mr Trump welcomed “possible progress” but warned of “false hope”. Still, even the many sceptics say Mr Trump should accept the North’s offer. Talks might give some insight into its intentions and priorities. They might also calm, if only temporarily, a combustible situation that at points last year seemed ready to explode into an accidental nuclear war. Then again, Messrs Trump and Kim may not like mundane negotiations as much they appear to enjoy insulting each other’s physiques and boasting about the size of their nuclear buttons.