North Korea on Sunday morning proposed talks with the U.S. to "ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, establish regional peace and security and realize the U.S. vision for a world free of nuclear weapons."
A statement by the North's National Defense Commission claimed denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was a long-cherished wish of nation founder Kim Il-sung and late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Yet senior North Korean military figure Choe Ryong-hae only last month reportedly urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to recognize the renegade country as a bona-fide nuclear power because it needs to defend itself against the U.S. He was rebuffed. Soon afterwards the North, evidently under Chinese pressure, proposed talks with Seoul but cancelled them on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Once again the North does not seem very sincere in its quest for talks with the U.S. Even its stated desire to discuss "the U.S. vision for a world free of nuclear weapons" means in effect that it wants mutual disarmament talks, and that simply is not going to happen.
Pyongyang has until recently demanded to lift international sanctions against it claiming that it is a nuclear power, and denounced the U.S. as a "warmonger" and "highway robber."
Not so long ago, the U.S. agreed to provide North Korea with 240,000 tons of food aid if it refrains from conducting a nuclear test and launching a long-range missile. Yet the North pushed ahead with its third nuclear test and launched a space rocket that was a thinly disguised test of long-range missile technology. Since then, the U.S. has steadfastly maintained that North Korea must take the concrete steps toward scrapping its nuclear weapons program if any dialogue is to take place.
Pyongyang surely realizes this and is merely going through the motions of seeking dialogue in order to win back lost love from China.
The North evidently still believes it can buy time by making such superficial offers of dialogue because Beijing will eventually come round. If that is true, it is seriously misreading changes in China’s attitude.
According to the New York Times, China took the unprecedented step of specifically describing the leverage it intends to use to get North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to scrap his nuclear weapons program. The daily quoted a U.S. official as saying that Beijing has realized that North Korea's nuclear weapons pose a far greater threat to stability on the Korean Peninsula than a regime collapse in the North.
This remains to be proven, but what is clear is that the Xi administration is not going to repeat the mistakes of past Chinese leaders in handling North Korea.
The North will feel the difference in the coming months, but in the meantime South Korea needs to prepare for the grim cycle of North Korean provocations that usually resumes when talks fail. If it genuinely wants to discuss scrapping its nuclear weapons program, it would initiate behind-the-scenes contact with the U.S. first. If not, it will resort to more provocations in order to force the U.S., China and South Korea into concessions. The scenario is drearily familiar.