Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have recently eased. North and South Korea are engaged in diplomatic talks, including discussions about the former’s controversial nuclear weapon program. North Korea also agreed to send athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in the South and marched alongside their southern counterparts under a unified flag. For many Americans, however, this progress has been overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s heated Twitter exchanges with North Korea, which seem to suggest tensions are at an all-time high.

These tweets do not paint the whole picture of US involvement in Korea. President Trump’s contribution to the current state of North and South Korea’s relationship has been largely positive in fact. By labeling the North a “state sponsor of terrorism” and increasing sanctions on the country, Trump further strained North Korea’s economy. This, along with new United Nations (UN) sanctions introduced last September, increased pressure on the regime. Given the North’s sudden interest in diplomatic talks, these sanctions appear to be working.  

Though many fear that President Trump’s hostility will force North Korea to respond militarily, that possibility is far-fetched. North Korea has little to gain by attacking the United States or its allies. President Trump has made it clear that any provocation will result in a full US response. A second Korean War, while costly, would ultimately result in a Northern defeat. The North would benefit much more through diplomacy, including an easing of sanctions, than through any sort of armed conflict.

President Trump has been willing to tone down his threats when necessary. For the duration of the Olympic Games, he agreed to suspend planned military drills with South Korea. Trump has also said that he would be willing to negotiate directly with the North. Both of these actions align the US with the views of South Korea, whose new president has taken a softer stance on dealing with North Korea, in hopes of increasing the success of negotiations.

Despite the progress that has been made, several obstacles still remain on the path to a stable Korean Peninsula. China’s absence from a meeting involving roughly twenty countries, including the US, the UK, and South Korea, to discuss the North’s nuclear program demonstrates that the divide on this issue between China and the West lingers. While China has significantly reduced trade with North Korea in compliance with the UN sanctions, it nonetheless continues to be its largest trade partner. If any deal with the North’s nuclear program is to be made, China must be a key partner.

In addition, North Korea’s efforts to sit at the negotiating table should not be accepted without caution. Japan has warned that the North may just be buying time to continue its nuclear program. Until meaningful results are gained from negotiations, such as a Northern agreement to limit or abandon its nuclear program, the international community must proceed with care.

That being said, there are still reasons to be hopeful. The United States continues to stand with its allies in the region, maintaining pressure on North Korea. China has finally complied with UN resolutions, thus ensuring that this pressure is felt. North Korean participation in the Olympics, while mostly symbolic, could represent a gradual re-establishment of its ties with the South. For now, the current strategy – harsh sanctions coupled with a willingness to negotiate – has produced encouraging results.