Despite the mutual chilliness between U.S. and North Korean officials in South Korea last week, behind the scenes real progress was made toward a new diplomatic opening that could result in direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang. This window of opportunity was born out of a new understanding reached between the White House and the president of South Korea.
Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview aboard Air Force Two on the way home from the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, told me that in his two substantive conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his trip, the United States and South Korea agreed on terms for further engagement with North Korea - first by the South Koreans and potentially with the United States soon thereafter.
The frame for the still-nascent diplomatic path forward is this: The United States and its allies will not stop imposing steep and escalating costs on the Kim Jong Un regime until it takes clear steps toward denuclearization. But the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime while that pressure campaign is ongoing.
Pence called it "maximum pressure and engagement at the same time." That's an important change from the previous U.S. position, which was to build maximum pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions and only then to engage directly with the regime.
"The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization," Pence said. "So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we'll talk."
Pence and Moon worked this out during their bilateral meeting Thursday at the Blue House and their joint viewing of speedskating heats in Pyeongchang on Saturday evening. Pence conferred with President Donald Trump every day he was in Asia. Before these meetings, the Trump and Moon administrations were not aligned on whether Seoul's new engagement with Pyongyang should continue after the Olympics end.
That dissonance showed just before their first meeting, when Moon said he wanted Olympic engagement to lead to real negotiations while Pence talked only about the pressure track. But inside the meeting, there was a breakthrough. Pence told Moon the international community must not repeat the mistakes of the past by giving North Korea concessions in exchange for talking. Pence asked Moon for his idea of how this engagement could be different.
Moon assured Pence he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic benefits for just talking- only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization. Based on that assurance, Pence felt confident he could endorse post-Olympic engagement with Pyongyang.
"I think it is different from the last 20 years," Pence said. I asked him what exact steps Pyongyang would have to take to get real sanctions relief. "I don't know," he said. "That's why you have to have talks."
The initial move the United States wants is for North Korea to put denuclearization on the table and take steps toward it, though that is not a condition for preliminary talks. That may be a bridge too far for the Kim regime, which is adamant that the international community accept its nuclear status. Pyongyang is also sure to want concessions from Washington, such as a delay in U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a non-starter for the alliance.
There are other spoilers that could torpedo the new opening. In Tokyo, Pence announced new sanctions on North Korea that he promised would be the toughest ever, due to be unveiled soon. In response, the Kim regime may resume testing its nuclear and missile programs, as it has done after past Olympic detentes. That would halt the diplomatic progress in its tracks.
Moon is working hard to prevent that from happening. He is entertaining a North Korean offer to visit Pyongyang. He is also urging the North Koreans to sit down with the United States at the earliest opportunity.
"Moon told me at the skating rink that he told [the North Koreans], 'You've got to talk to the Americans,' " Pence said.
The idea of "talks about talks" is not new. In fact, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised the idea multiple times. Trump himself has said he sees nothing wrong with talking with the North Koreans per se. Moving from that to substantive negotiations would still be extremely difficult. But to make any real progress, talking is the first necessary step.
The White House's endorsement of the concept of initial talks without preconditions is hugely significant. It provides a real fix to the break between Washington and Seoul. It also increases the chances the United States and North Korea will soon begin a process that represents the best hope of preventing a devastating international conflict.