The commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said Wednesday that he's cautiously optimistic nuclear diplomacy will work out with North Korea. But he also said Seoul and Washington must continue to apply pressure so that "there's not a reason or even an ability" for the North to back out.
Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters that reports about continuing nuclear and missile development activities in North Korea show that Pyongyang currently lacks confidence that it can take real steps toward denuclearization and still be safe.
"While I do seek to have empathy to understand why North Korea is doing what it's doing and where it's coming from, nevertheless, this is a condition North Korea created for itself," Brooks said in a news conference in Seoul. "They will have to take the risk to move into the direction toward peace, given that they created the circumstances we are in."
Following a provocative year in weapons development, during which it tested a purported thermonuclear warhead and demonstrated potential capability to strike the U.S. mainland, the North has shifted to a diplomatic approach in 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a historic summit with President Donald Trump in June. They issued aspirations for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when or how it would occur.
Post-summit talks aimed at mapping out a denuclearization process got off to a rocky start, with North Korea accusing a senior U.S. delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of making unilateral demands for the country to relinquish its arsenal. North Korea has also been demanding that the United States fast-track discussions on a declaration to formally end the Korean War, which stopped with an armistice and not a peace treaty.
Nuclear diplomacy with North Korea has been littered with failures in past decades. But Brooks said the chances of success are better this time around because of the change of governments in Washington and Seoul and also because the threat posed by the North's nuclear and long-range missile program is greater than ever. For diplomatic efforts to succeed, it would be critical for the allies and North Korea to overcome distrust and misperception, where "actions taken by one party are not understood the way they were intended to be by the actor when the receiver sees it," Brooks said.
He noted that the United States and North Korea have made important trust-building steps in past weeks, such as the North returning 55 sets of remains of what are believed to be U.S. servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.
"It was a very important step, but it's akin to one plank being put down on a long bridge that crosses a long gap of distrust," Brooks said.
Analysts say a declaration to officially end the war would make it easier for Pyongyang to steer the discussions with Washington toward a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition, security assurance and economic benefits.
Washington has maintained that Pyongyang wouldn't be offered sanctions relief and significant rewards unless it firmly commits to a process of completely and verifiably eliminating its nuclear weapons.
"There clearly is an urgency for this, especially on part of North Korea. But this is one that really has to be understood among especially the three countries — South Korea, North Korea and the United States." Brooks said. "What it means has to be very clear, that needs to be understood in advance, and what it doesn't mean also perhaps need to be understood."