US-North Korea talks
Although the U.S.-North Korea talks of July 28-29 in New York produced no substantive agreement or new information regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, the talks signaled Washington’s policy shift from waiting to dialogue.
This revival of bilateral talks is significant, as it is likely to contribute to preventing provocation and reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula, while talks or at least a mood of talks would continue.
The format, nature and positive characterization of the New York talks by both sides, however, recall top U.S. North Korea policy official Stephen Bosworth’s visit to Pyongyang in December 2009, after which nothing positive happened.
Both meetings were held between the same people (Bosworth and DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan), for the same duration (two days), on the same topic (denuclearization), in the same context of an “exploratory” meeting. And both meetings brought the same result of no agreement, but in different places (Pyongyang and New York), and with very similar upbeat descriptions of the talks.
However, there are some important differences between then and now. Since Bosworth’s visit to Pyongyang in 2009, the North Koreans dropped their two earlier preconditions to their return to the six-party talks — discussion of a peace treaty and lifting of sanctions.
Now they are saying they are ready for the resumption of multilateral talks, which they had abandoned in protest of the U.N. sanctions after their rocket launch in April 2009.
Washington has not explained why it decided to engage the North at this point after a year and seven months of no engagement. The New York talks took place in a rather surprising development less than a week after the first nuclear talks between the North and
the South in Bali, which did not fully satisfy Seoul’s position, particularly on the issue of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program (UEP).
Whereas Washington’s position, which has been closely coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo at least in formality, has not changed very much from demanding North Korea to show its serious commitment to denuclearization by taking steps forward, Pyongyang is unlikely to meet these demands other than by word alone. Pyongyang’s stance is, “Let’s have more bilateral talks and discuss all issues of concern to both sides. It’s fine with the North if Washington wants to talk about these issues in the multilateral formula.”
What’s strikingly different now from December 2009, is that North Korea has an operating UEP, which Pyongyang announced that it would undertake in June 2009. They then demonstrated their unexpectedly rapid progress in November 2010 to Siegfried Hecker, an American nuclear scientist. Kim Kye-gwan said this time the program is meant to produce fuel for electricity, but there is plenty of good reason for not taking him seriously on this.
Seoul’s position on the UEP, with some backing from Washington, has softened from taking it to the U.N. Security Council for violation of its resolutions and the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement.
Seoul still demands suspension of the UEP and putting it under IAEA inspection as a condition in the resumption of six-party talks, a condition Pyongyang would not accommodate now but would negotiate in resumed bilateral or multilateral meetings later.
To facilitate a follow-up to the New York talks Washington, as Bosworth said, would have to consult with Seoul and Tokyo again. Seoul probably hopes to hold at least one more meeting with the North as a formality, even if no further substantive agreement is expected from a second meeting. This process is important for Seoul, which does not want to endorse the resumption of nuclear talks by a single inter- Korean meeting. The problem is the
North does not seem to be interested in another meeting.
The North Koreans knew they had to meet with the South in Bali, convinced that otherwise there would be no meeting with the Americans.
However, it would be a mistake if they were to believe that they could gain from bilateral talks with Washington, by bypassing Seoul. The North Koreans should also understand that the continuing tensions in inter-Korean relations do not improve the prospect of a negotiated settlement of its concerns — security, survival and economic development.
From Washington’s point of view, stability on the peninsula and containment of the North Korean nuclear program, from further development and proliferation through transfer of fissile materials or technology, are urgent issues that the U.S. can’t afford to keep putting off.
Perhaps once the six-party talks resume, the first priority would be to have an accurate update from the North regarding changes that have occurred to its nuclear program since the last meeting of the six-party talks in December 2008. As I have suggested several times in this column, the parties could then agree to reinstate the disablement of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. Suspension of the UEP and moratoriums on North Korea’s further nuclear tests and missile launches would be in good order to pursue next.
From Pyongyang’s point of view, having learned that provocations do not pay, the North’s central interest is in economic improvement for which stability is essential, as Kim Jong-il said in his last visit to Beijing. The North has survived the dire predictions of collapse although it still faces continuing challenges of internal stability, economic problems and international sanctions and isolation.
If the renewal of U.S.-North Korea talks proves to be a new breakthrough in the denuclearization process, it would be only the beginning of a long process without assurance of success. Yet dialogue is more conducive to peace than tension. 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.