By Tong Kim
Given Washington’s prolonged policy of refusing to engage Pyongyang, the North Koreans seem to have been more responsive to opportunities for Track II Diplomacy, involving non-government actors of the United States. To open the door to dialogue or to find a breakthrough to a deadlock in dialogue, North Korea has often utilized civilian and even third party channels to send a message to the United States.
North Korea is sending scientists, trade specialists and agricultural officials to the U.S. when they are invited by private institutions, including Georgia University, New York University at Syracuse, and University of California at San Diego. In addition, there will be more North Korean groups to visit America in the fields of sports and culture, as American private sponsorships become available. However, while these people-to-people exchanges are helpful to increase understanding and mitigating mutual hostile feelings on a long-term basis, they are unlikely to have any positive impact on the resolution of an urgent need of finding a way forward on the North Korean issues.
Among the recent Track II activities, last week’s discussion in Germany between a DPRK foreign ministry delegation and the Aspen Institute may be most significant in terms of policy substance. The participants included former undersecretary of state Tom Pickering and Pyongyang’s foreign ministry director of American affairs, Li Gun. The discussion topics were the issues of denuclearization, a peace treaty and economic assistance from the South and the international community, which in fact are the very issues to be discussed in government-to-government negotiations, when they take place.
With regard to the efficacy of Track II diplomacy, former president Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang in 1994 is still cited as the most successful case of a private citizen’s involvement in U.S.-North Korea relations, as it provided a decisive U.S. policy turning point towards a negotiated settlement of the first North Korean nuclear crisis.
By common definition in conflict resolution theories, the Track II approach refers to contact, exchange of views, and other conduit activities between civilian organizations or individuals of two countries that are in dispute with each other. This definition does not neatly fit North Korea where no bona fide private institutions exist. In any civilian contact, the North Korean side is always represented by state officials or state-affiliated officials who all speak the same official political line of their regime.
North Korea invites private American citizens to Pyongyang from among former officials of the U.S. government or think tank specialists who are interested in U.S.-North Korea relations to Pyongyang to brief them on the North’s perspectives of U.S. policy and sometimes even announce some new, forward leaning positions. Some of them are annual visitors to the North, who meet with the same DPRK foreign ministry officials whom they have met before and who seldom have anything new to add to what has been stated over Pyongyang’s official media.
These private individuals do not carry a message of the United States, but most of these private citizens, having previously worked in government on North Korea or having followed the North Korean issue for a long time, are well informed of the U.S. policy. The North Koreans listen to them to update their perspectives. These private visitors usually bring a DPRK message to Washington. Feedback from Pyongyang on U.S. positions thus obtained helps the U.S. administration to update its understanding of the North Koreans.
However Track II activities have not had strong enough an impact to change Washington’s policy. Perhaps the most stunning information that the North has recently revealed to the United States through a private channel was that the North had made significant progress in its uranium enrichment program, when they showed 2,000 centrifuges to Siegfried Hecker, a well-known American nuclear expert, last November. Even this critical information has not changed the U.S. policy of neglecting and distancing the North.
In retrospect former President Bill Clinton’s meeting with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang August 2009, through which President Obama was able to confirm that the North Korean leader was not about to die from the aftermath of a stroke, but he was still firmly in control of the North Korean ruling structure, greatly contributed to Washington’s decision to send U.S. North Korea policy representative Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang in December 2009. Since then, there has been no official meeting between Washington and Pyongyang.
In December last year, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s visit to Pyongyang brought a new message that the North was ready to return to the six-party Talks, and it was willing to invite IAEA inspectors back and to export spent-fuel rods to a third country. But that did not change the administration’s conditions for talks, which require the North to show seriousness to implement its commitment to denuclearization and to improve relations with the South.
In 1994, Carter was not an official envoy, although he was thoroughly briefed by the Clinton administration on the North Korean nuclear issue before he went to Pyongyang. Carter’s role during the first nuclear crisis was not appreciated by the White House at that time, because it created an unwelcome perception that the sitting President’s leadership was preempted.
Now Jimmy Carter again plans to travel to the North sometime this month, hoping his trip would help facilitate resumptions of direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea Carter went to Pyongyang last July but he could not meet with the North Korean leader, who had left on his visit to China. Yet, since his return from the North, Carter has consistently called for the Obama administration to engage in negotiations with the North Koreans.
Rightwing conservatives call Carter and other engagement proponents ``pro-North Korean dupes,” a sarcastic and derogatory label that disregards their genuine concerns of a ``catastrophic confrontation” with North Korea. Last Friday President Lee Myung-bak said the North Koreans are not sincere and reconfirmed that the South would not talk to the North unless they apologize for the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan.
The administration has not shown an interest in Carter’s advocacy to the disappointment of engagement supporters, including former ambassador to Seoul Don Gregg. It is safe to predict that Carter will meet with Kim Jong-il this time. Carter is respected for his previous contributions to peacemaking and his view is appreciated by the North Koreans working on U.S. affairs. After Carter’s plan was announced, the State Department quickly dissociated itself from the former President, clarifying that he will not carry an official message and he will travel as a private citizen.
What this means is the administration does not share Carter’s views, and it is not interested in a private channel. But it is interested to wait and see what may result from Carter’s trip. For Carter to succeed to help resolve the third nuclear crisis, Kim Jong-il must show something concrete beyond words. By words alone, he will no longer be taken seriously by Washington or Seoul. What’s your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.