After conducting a series of missile tests which had heightened concern on the Korean peninsula, tensions have eased in recent weeks as North Korea has made a series of surprise diplomatic moves that have raised hopes for renewed peaceful dialogue.

The first signal that North Korea was open to dialogue came during Kim Jong Un's New Year's Day speech in which he called for talks. This was followed by North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea, including attendance by the North Korean leader's sister. And recently, Kim Jong Un made a surprise visit to China — his first international trip since he became his country's supreme leader in 2011. He used the trip as a platform to reiterate North Korea's willingness to discuss its nuclear program.

The next step in North Korea's recent diplomatic turn will be a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-In, which is scheduled for the end of April. While leaders from the two sides have met before, if this meeting happens as planned, and Kim Jong Un takes that step across the fortified border, it will mark the first time in history that a North Korean leader has entered South Korea. Leaders of the two nations—which are technically still at war—have only met twice since the peninsula was divided in 1948.

This meeting would carry additional significance, if it takes place, as it could set the groundwork for a planned meeting between North Korea and the United States later this year.

Despite all of the recent positive developments, there are many reasons to remain cautious:

  • The White House has cited the North Korea-China meeting as evidence that its maximum pressure campaign is working. However, China represents a huge pressure release valve on the Korean peninsula, as China's support of North Korean sanctions has been important. It is possible that closer ties between North Korea and China could serve to undermine those sanctions.
  • Moreover, a thawing relationship between China and North Korea would give North Korea a second option to negotiations - and that's where the risks lie.
  • John Bolton, the incoming National Security Advisor, is known for being hawkish on North Korea and has recently advocated a first strike strategy. If U.S.-North Korea talks become contentious, it is possible that North Korea could turn to China and find a willing partner. China certainly opposes a nuclear North Korea but it also isn't keen to lose a buffer state between itself and the West.

My View: While the recent developments on the Korean peninsula have been constructive, and the scheduled meeting between North and South Korea is certainly historic, many key issues remain unsolved. Moreover with multiple actors involved, each of whom has its own disparate interests, the negotiating field is likely to remain fluid - and difficult to navigate.

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