As possible high-level talks between the United States and North Korea rapidly approach, it remains to be seen how much either side is willing to compromise to reach a breakthrough in relations. As Stratfor's 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast noted, reducing tensions between the two countries has been an uphill battle thanks to the thorny issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Though compromise on that issue will be difficult to come by, recent reports indicate that both sides may be willing to make necessary concessions to forge a new path forward.
Since its surprise announcement in March, it's been an open question whether the upcoming top-level sit-down between the United States and North Korea can cut through the decades of diplomatic impasse to reach a breakthrough. The unique political positions of both U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mean that, unlike past representatives in such talks, each has the power and latitude to make decisions. However, it is still unclear how much either side is willing to compromise or is truly serious about reaching a deal. Though, on April 12, South Korean government sources indicated that the United States is floating incentives that include liaison offices, aid and eventual diplomatic ties — just the sort of enticements that would be necessary to pursue a viable path.
Going into talks, both sides will have objectives in mind. In reaching out to the United States, North Korea's short-term goals are to engage with the United States as a peer, move toward breaking out of its economic constraints and eventually secure diplomatic normalization and a final peace deal for the Korean War. Long-term, North Korea's objective is to reunify the Korean Peninsula in a way that secures a strong role for elements of its current power structure. The United States, for its part, is looking to create a channel for dialogue and secure a halt to North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Ultimately, the United States' primary goal is the complete and irreversible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program. Though achieving such an end would be difficult and fraught with uncertainty, compromise on this point is not impossible given that North Korea's nuclear program is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
With the Trump-Kim summit approaching in late May or early June, intelligence officials from both countries are reportedly engaging in back-channel talks to set the agenda. South Korea's Dong-a Ilbo newspaper is reporting that the Trump administration is exploring options to incentivize North Korean denuclearization, including opening mutual liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington this year, offering humanitarian aid and eventually opening embassies. These proposals match the requirements that advocates of a diplomatic solution have long identified as necessary for a successful deal, suggesting the United States is serious about making progress. On the other hand, the United States is reportedly not considering easing sanctions or offering any form of economic cooperation. Not doing so would allow Washington to maintain pressure on Pyongyang, while also providing North Korea with just enough incentives and confidence-building measures.
The reports did not indicate what North Korea might offer on its end, but there are signs that Pyongyang is also serious about negotiating. On April 10, Kim publicly mentioned the upcoming summit for the first time in remarks to Politburo standing committee members, with an accompanying report published in state media. And the annual updates from North Korean officials submitted to North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly made a rhetorical shift by making no mention of North Korea as a nuclear power but instead calling it a "strategic state." A full denuclearization could take well over a decade to complete, beginning with a testing freeze, easing toward inspections and eventually leading to the disassembly and securing of weapons systems. Amid the uncertainty that such a long, drawn-out process will truly occur, the normalization of diplomatic ties and movement toward a peace treaty will be key.
In the near future, the first signal of the direction for relations between the United States and North Korea will be seen in the ongoing outreach to partners such as China. Meanwhile, the first test case for the meeting between Trump and Kim will come either at the April 27 inter-Korean summit or the rumored sit-down between Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials. But, given the history of diplomatic breakdowns and sudden reversals, such a path forward is a risky one and there is still a major possibility that the much-touted diplomatic warning will break down. That being said, recent reports suggest at the very least that the United States is seriously considering shifts that would make a breakthrough possible.