ON THE eve of the first summit between leaders of North and South Korea, in June 2000, America’s then-ambassador to Seoul sent a secret cable to his masters in Washington, DC. In it, Stephen Bosworth pondered whether the talks might be an unprecedented chance to lower nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula, or whether they might prove a trap, should a naive South Korean public lose their fear of the Stalinist North and question why American troops were still needed on their soil.

The cable, which was declassified and published last December by the National Security Archive at the George Washington University, offers a timely reminder that for American governments, it is always a mixed blessing when North Korea’s reclusive, murderous regime says that it wants to talk.

That helps explain a cautious tone adopted by President Donald Trump on March 6th, hours after South Korean envoys emerged from talks with Kim Jong Un, the northern leader, to announce plans for a full-scale North-South summit in April. “They seem to be acting positively,” Mr Trump said of North Korea on the sidelines of an Oval Office meeting with the prime minister of Sweden. A deal to end the North’s nuclear arms and intercontinental missile programmes would be “a great thing for the world,” Mr Trump added. At a press conference later in the same day, the president offered his hope that North Korea is “sincere”, and ascribed their willingness to talk to “very strong, very biting” international sanctions. He offered specific thanks to China, which had been a “big help” with sanctions, even if they could do more.

For his part, Mr Trump’s chief diplomat, Rex Tillerson, stressed that North Korea’s quest to build a nuclear arsenal is only one of the ways in which it threatens world peace. The secretary of state’s cool response came shortly after South Korea’s envoys declared that North Korea wants “heart-to-heart” talks with America. The South Korean delegation, led by the national security director to President Moon Jae-in, added that the North had “clearly affirmed” its commitment to a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons, and explained that it would “have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea [be] removed”.

Rejecting any suggestion that North Korea’s rogue conduct is a bilateral headache that America alone can and must solve, Mr Tillerson called on the whole world to isolate and press North Korea to stop “its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and proliferation activities, including its arms exports to Africa.”

Go back to that secret cable from 2000, and the wariness of Mr Trump and Mr Tillerson becomes easier to understand. That first summit, a generation ago, brought Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il, face-to-face with the South’s doveish dissident-turned-president, Kim Dae Jung. At the American embassy in Seoul, Mr Bosworth watched and worried. He wrote of “irrational exuberance” among the South Korean public about the prospects for an imminent “grand resolution” of the crisis on their peninsula, notably after seeing television images of a “confident” Kim Jong Il making his debut on the world stage in Beijing. The ambassador noted the simple impact of Mr Kim looking so different from the “dissipated, degenerate ‘playboy madman’ deliciously and maliciously painted for years in the South’s media”. Mr Bosworth’s cable noted a “sharp decline” in the South Korean sense of the threat from the North, though he added that, to date, there had been no major opinion shift against the presence of American troops.

Ever since North Korea revealed its nuclear weapons programme, a generation ago, American governments have preferred a North Korea that is offering to talk to one that is firing off long-range missiles or testing new weapons. American governments also understand that their ally, South Korea, has good cause to long for peace on the peninsula. The southern capital, Seoul, is in range of northern artillery batteries thought capable of firing 10,000 rounds a minute, all backed by the North’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons. But successive American governments also know that North Korea is a master at playing on southern desires for peace, and at using talks to buy time for its weapons scientists to build new arms. The two previous North-South summits, in 2000 and 2007, achieved little, beyond securing the North cash and food to prop up its failing planned economy.

Few Americans have such extensive experience of wrangling with North Korea as Joseph DeTrani, a career CIA officer who from 2003 to 2006 served as America’s lead negotiator at “six-party talks” between America, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Russia. Mr DeTrani, who in retirement has continued to meet North Koreans as an officially sanctioned American envoy, most recently in 2016, said in an interview on March 6th that he is “encouraged that the North Koreans want to talk.” He believes that this olive branch is a sign that sanctions are biting and that Kim Jong Un is feeling isolated. But the retired intelligence high-up is “totally not excited” by headlines suggesting that North Korea is willing to scrap its nukes in exchange for American security guarantees. If sanctions bring Kim Jong Un to the table, the young North Korean leader feels he is coming to bargain “sort of as an equal”, after a spate of dramatic successes with his missile programme and the test of what appeared to be a hydrogen bomb.

“There is no indication that North Korea is willing to denuclearise,” says Mr DeTrani. “They have worked since the 1950s to acquire nuclear weapons.” Worse, he has personal knowledge of what North Korea’s regime means when it talks of security guarantees, after heading the American working groups that spent much of 2003, 2004 and 2005 preparing the ground for the joint statement issued after a fourth round of “six-party talks” in 2005, in which North Korea promised to abandon all nuclear weapons and America affirmed that it has no intention of attacking or invading the North.

“When they spoke of security assurances, they meant more than a piece of paper,” recalls Mr DeTrani. “They would talk about our hostile attitude, and ask: why do you need US forces in the region, why do you need bases in Japan?” Northern officials made clear they wanted Americans out of the region, and for the United States to tear up defence treaties with South Korea and Japan. That sort of American retreat was never on offer, and so it is reasonable to remain sceptical about the chances of substantive negotiations. Yet in these tense times, even talks about talks, to explore whether there is enough common ground to resume serious, direct dialogue, would be better than the alternative. Just hold the irrational exuberance.