As a planned summit between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un approaches, Pyongyang has indicated it would abandon its nuclear programme without requiring American troops to leave the Korean Peninsula.
“The North is expressing a will for a complete denuclearisation”, South Korean president Moon Jae-in said to reporters. “They have not attached any conditions that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. All they are talking about is the end of hostile policies against North Korea, followed by a guarantee of security”.
Achieving a deal on those terms would represent a resounding success for Mr Trump, who months earlier had threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea during a United Nations speech to world leaders.
North Korea has long decried the presence of US troops, and their regular joint drills with South Korean forces, as provocations that could presage an invasion and necessitate Pyongyang’s military buildup.
But any demands for an exit of US troops would likely be a nonstarter for America. Despite nascent diplomatic efforts, the Trump administration has stuck by a campaign of “maximum pressure” and harsh sanctions on the North Korean regime.
The commitment to denuclearise while allowing US forces to remain, conveyed via a South Korean leader who has prioritised better relations with the North, continued diplomatic manoeuvring ahead of high-stakes talks. Earlier this month CIA director Mike Pompeo met with Mr Kim in Pyongyang, and Mr Trump said efforts are on pace to convene talks by June.
After spending the first stretch of Mr Trump’s term threatening to devastate other countries, and testing increasingly sophisticated ballistics missiles believed to be capable of hitting the US mainland, North Korea pivoted to talking with the South and extending Mr Trump an invitation to meet with Mr Kim.
Paralleling the American-led efforts to end the North Korean nuclear threat, South Korea is hoping to use the diplomatic opening to achieve a lasting change to the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
Earlier in the week, South Korean officials said they hoped to also strike a peace accord to formally bring an end to the Korean War, which halted with a 1953 armistice but never again technically ended in the decades the north and the south spent warily watching each other across a heavily fortified border.
Taken together, the efforts to conclude the war and dismantle Pyongyang’s weapons programme offer the contours of a sweeping response to one of the world’s most intractable issues.
Mr Trump expressed both hopefulness and a willingness to abandon the talks if they prove futile, saying earlier this week that the US would do “everything possible to make it a worldwide success” but adding that America might still walk away.
“If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go”, Mr Trump told reporters. “If the meeting, when I’m there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting”.