In December, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a bold offer to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk,” he told an audience at the Atlantic Council, a Washington foreign policy think tank.
He went further. “We are ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let’s just meet,” he said, “and we can talk about the weather if you want. Talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table, if that’s what you are excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face, and then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map of what we might be willing to work towards.”
The White House, however, threw cold water on the suggestion the next day. A National Security Council spokesman told CNN that the administration was “open to the possibility of dialogue,” but that any such talks were predicated on the DPRK taking “sincere and meaningful actions toward denuclearization.” That, for those keeping score a home, is a precondition.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un used his New Year’s Day speech to suggest bilateral talks with the South Korean government. And the South Korean government responded in the affirmative.
On Tuesday, the first of those talks actually happened in the Joint Security Area near Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. The first issue on the agenda? The weather.
Anyone who has been paying attention would have drawn a straight line between Tillerson’s offer and what actually transpired. Sure, the U.S. wasn’t at the table. But there was a table. And they started by talking about the weather, the safest topic when you don’t know what else to say. Just as the secretary had suggested.
Just before the talks took place, the president took to Twitter to take credit. “With all of the failed ‘experts’ weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” the president asked.
Predictably, Twitter wasn’t kind. When is it ever?
But here’s the rub: the administration, if not the president himself, does indeed deserve a share of the credit for getting the two Koreas back to the table. Even South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in, not exactly a Trump cheerleader, says so. At a news conference ahead of the talks, Moon said, “I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks. It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”
For months, we’ve been saying here that the only thing North Korea respects is strength, and that every time American pacifists got the vapors over Trump’s bombastic talk, they were fundamentally misunderstanding the concept of not backing down in the face of a threat. We didn’t back down, and from his perspective, neither did KJU.
Both sides can take a share of the credit, but in the end, the tensions are easing. North Korea will never give up the nukes it has, and everyone knows that. But we can have a constructive dialogue that seeks to find a place where we can agree to end the madness. The president and Secretary Tillerson deserve their fair share of the credit for making these small but significant talks happen. It may seem like just one tiny crack in the armor, but it’s a solid start.