KCNA / Courtesy Reuters North Korean leader Kim Jong Un laughs during his visit to the Kangdong Precision Machine Plant, January 16, 2015.

Making Sense of North Korea

How to Respond to Pyongyang's Charm Offensive

On January 10, Pyongyang offered a concession in its standoff with the West: It would temporarily halt its nuclear testing if Washington would cancel its upcoming military drills with South Korea. Although surprising, such a gesture is not new. Pyongyang has been softening its tone for some time now, as a possible sign that it is ready to move beyond its usual mode of communication—boorish threats and missile launches—and toward greater engagement.

The thaw began in September, 2014. After a 15-year absence at the United Nations, Pyongyang sent Ri Su Yong, its foreign minister, to New York to speak before the General Assembly where he made a call “to prevent war and safeguard peace” in the Korean peninsula. In October, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mysteriously disappeared from public view for a month, top officials made an unprecedented appearance at the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon and proposed resuming high-level meetings with the South. Soon after, as an ostensible olive branch to Washington, Pyongyang gradually released three U.S. citizens who had been held in North Korean labor camps, some for evangelism, which is illegal there. At the end of October, Pyongyang and Tokyo made progress in ending decades of chilly relations after the abduction of possibly hundreds of Japanese citizens during the Cold War. Although the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, North Korea welcomed a delegation of Japanese officials for the first time in ten years to discuss new investigations into the hostages’ whereabouts. North Korea even reached out to Moscow in mid-November, sending Choe Ryong-hae, a senior official close to Kim, on an eight-day tour of the capital. There, he met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who said, “A further deepening of political ties and trade and economic cooperation is definitely in the interest of the peoples of both countries and ensuring regional stability and security.” In another surprising move, during his new year’s address, Kim Jong Un expressed

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