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North Korea: a radical change in US diplomacy?

Ⓒ AFP – MANDEL NGAN – | US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Speaks at a US-South Korea Forum in Washington, DC, December 12, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have announced a radical change in US diplomacy on the North Korean issue, saying that Washington was ready to discuss with Pyongyang “without preconditions”.

After a year of threats and insults between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, can this declaration bolster tensions? Here are some answers:

– What changed?

For years, the United States has refused to negotiate if North Korea does not take steps to dismantle its nuclear program.

Ⓒ AFP/Archives – Kim Won-Jin – | North Korean soldiers celebrate the declaration that the country became a nuclear power in Pyongyang on December 1, 2017

But North Korea has made six nuclear tests since 2006 and declared at the end of November to be a nuclear state in its own right in the wake of a new intercontinental missile fire. The very notion of disarmament has become unrealistic for many experts.

“We are ready to discuss as soon as North Korea wants to discuss,” Rex Tillerson said Tuesday at a conference in Washington.

Former United States Secretary of Defense William Perry, who had been involved in concluding a 1994 framework agreement with the North, saw this statement as “very encouraging news”.

“We need to find a way to get back to the table (negotiations) to defuse the volatile situation with North Korea,” he said in a tweet.

– What does Donald Trump think?

Through sanctions and bellicose rhetoric, the Trump administration has continued to increase pressure on Pyongyang.

Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, General HR McMaster, told a conference ten days ago that the likelihood of a war with the North was “increasing every day.”

Ⓒ AFP – SAUL LOEB – | Donald Trump at a ceremony in Washington, DC, December 11, 2017

The US President has in recent months swept away the efforts of his secretary of state: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time negotiating with little Rocket Man …” (the rocket man), had tweeted Donald Trump in October. In recent weeks, the rumor of a reshuffle at the State Department has swelled.

As well, there is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Tillerson’s statements signal a reversal of US policy.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump’s position on North Korea had “not changed.”

– How could Pyongyang react?

North Korea has long demanded unconditional discussions and could respond positively to Tillerson, experts say.

“They think that the United States will ultimately have no choice but to talk to the North, and they may be right,” said Chung Sung-Yoon of the Institute for Unification. Seoul National Council.

“The North’s strategy is to go round and face sanctions until the international community is reduced to recognizing that the North is a nuclear power,” he said.

The more advanced its nuclear program is, the stronger the position of North Korea in possible negotiations.

– What will the neighbors say?

China, North Korea’s single largest economic ally and benefactor, and South Korea are likely to welcome Tillerson’s comments.

Under increasing pressure from Washington to bring his neighbor to his senses, Beijing has repeatedly called for defusing the crisis. South Korean President Moon Jae-In is well known for being a supporter of dialogue.

Japan, Washington’s key military ally in Asia, has also called for means to be found to defuse tensions. Some North Korean missiles flew over the Japanese archipelago.

– What are the precedents?

For decades, all Western efforts have fallen apart.

A 1994 framework agreement provides northern civil nuclear reactors and other aid programs in exchange for denuclearization. But Washington accuses Pyongyang of secretly relaunching its nuclear weapons program, North Korea protests delays in the delivery of aid and the agreement is shattered.

In 2003, this is the beginning of the six-party talks under the auspices of China, which bring together Beijing, the United States, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan.

In 2005, the North promised to give up its nuclear operations but conducted its first atomic test the following year. Pyongyang slammed the door of the talks in 2009 and conducted his second nuclear test soon after.

The North has relentlessly pursued its military ambitions, accelerating the movement with the arrival of Kim Jong-Un on the death of his father Kim Jong-Il at the end of 2011.

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