North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

US, DPRK End Two-Day Exploratory Meeting

Kim Kye Gwan, Vice Foreign Minister of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), speaks to the media outside the US Mission to the United Nations in New York, July 29, 2011. Representatives from the United States and the DPRK concluded on Friday their two-day exploratory talks aiming at possible resumption of the long-stalled six-party talks on Korean Peninsular denuclearization in New York, with both sides describing the discussions have been "constructive and business-like." (Xinhua/Shen Hong)

A US-DPRK exploratory interaction ended Friday after two days of meetings that examined the possibility of resuming the Six Party Talks.  The meetings were described as “serious and business-like discussions.”  DPRK 1st Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-kwan said described the meetings as “constructive and practical,” that he “would try to continue momentum down the road” and that both sides “decided to continue negotiations.”

In a three-hour meeting on Friday, Robert King, US envoy for human rights in the DPRK, participated in the meetings.  US Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korean Affairs, said in a statement after the two days of meetings, “We reiterated that the path is open to North Korea towards the resumption of talks on improved relations with the United States and greater regional stability if North Korea demonstrates through its actions that it supports the resumption of the six-party process as a committed and constructive partner.”

Choe Sang-hun and Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times/IHT:

“North Korea should take these presteps to improve six-party talks and make them more effective when they are resumed,” said Wi Sung-lac, who met his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong-ho, last week in Indonesia, referring to previous rounds of negotiations that included the two nations as well as the United States, Japan, Russia and China. “The North Korean reaction was not positive.”

The United States pressed the same demands during two days of talks with North Korean officials in New York that ended inconclusively on Friday. The meetings between Stephen W. Bosworth, the special American envoy on North Korean affairs, and Kim Kye-gwan, the first vice foreign minister of North Korea, were the first between the two sides since Mr. Bosworth visited North Korea in December 2009.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited Mr. Kim to New York for what officials called “exploratory talks” to gauge whether North Korea was serious about living up to past commitments to nuclear disarmament agreements. Previous negotiations ended abruptly in 2008, and since then, North Korea has detonated a nuclear device, tested a long-range rocket that may one day be able to carry nuclear warheads and revealed an industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant.

In a statement on Friday, the State Department called the discussions in New York “constructive and businesslike” but announced no progress, saying the United States would decide what to do next after consulting with South Korea and others.

“The United States reiterated that the path is open to North Korea towards the resumption of talks, improved relations with the United States, and greater regional stability if North Korea demonstrates through actions that it supports the resumption of the six-party process as a committed and constructive partner,” the statement said.

The Americans and their allies have made it clear that they want North Korea to take what Mr. Wi called “presteps” as evidence of its sincerity. The stance reflects a deep suspicion that North Korea was seeking talks simply to extract badly needed economic aid and to buy time to build a nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jung-wook and Moon Gwang-lip reported on the first day of meetings in JoongAng Ilbo:

“Today’s discussions have been serious and businesslike,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our meetings tomorrow.”

A diplomatic source in Washington said that the U.S. government’s choice of vocabulary provides insight into the status of the talks.

“The U.S. government frequently uses the expression ‘serious and businesslike’ when it exchanges opinions with a negotiating partner sufficiently but still has difficulty finding common ground,” the source said.

The source added that the North Korean delegation is trying to create a conciliatory atmosphere to make it easier to strike a deal while the American delegation appears to be focused on the talks’ original purpose of denuclearizing the regime.

“They’ve been down this road before and it’s a chance for us to gauge their seriousness,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, referring to North Korea.

The North, in contrast, appeared more relaxed than their American counterparts.

“The atmosphere was good, and the meeting was constructive and interesting,” Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, said during a break. “We exchanged views on general issues.”

Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, Washington’s top envoy on North Korean affairs met Kim for around five hours at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

After the meeting ended around 4:30 p.m., Kim emerged out of the building with a smile, while Bosworth stayed inside until reporters left.

Another meeting is slated for Friday in New York.

The North Korean delegation’s visit was at the invitation of the United States after surprise inter-Korean nuclear talks at the Asean Regional Forum in Bali last week, raising hopes for a resumption of the long-delayed six-party denuclearization talks.

Seoul, Washington and Beijing have agreed that a restart of the six-party talks would follow inter-Korean and Washington-Pyongyang talks.

But resuming the six-party talks is not likely to be easy, according to many observers, because of many unmet conditions on the North’s part.

Meanwhile, Cho Hyun-dong, Seoul’s deputy chief to the six-party talks, made an unscheduled trip to New York on Thursday, triggering speculation about the trip’s motive.

A Seoul official said the trip’s purpose was to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue with the United States.

Kim Kye Gwan (C), Vice Foreign Minister of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and Ri Gun (L), director general of the American Bureau of the DPRK Foreign Ministry, leave the US Mission to the United Nations in New York, July 28, 2011. Representatives from the United States and the DPRK Thursday concluded their first day of a two-day dialogue aiming at reviving the long-stalled six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, with the U.S. side describing the discussion as "serious and business-like." (Xinhua/Shen Hong)

Chico Harlan reported in the Washington Post:

The six-party process faces skepticism from almost all involved — the result of years of denuclearization promises from Pyongyang and subsequent efforts to build its nuclear arsenal. The isolated authoritarian country, many security analysts say, depends on its nuclear threat for legitimacy.

The State Department described this week’s talks as a means for gauging North Korea’s willingness to fulfill a 2005 agreement to abandon its nuclear program. Since that agreement was reached — with the promise of North Korea receiving aid and energy in return — Pyongyang has twice tested nuclear weapons; it also has built up a uranium enrichment program, unveiled late last year to a visiting American scientist.

As leader Kim Jong Il tries to pass power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, North Korea has become among the Obama administration’s most puzzling targets: Diplomacy gives the United States a chance to influence Pyongyang and keep its nuclear program from further expansion. But diplomacy also threatens a repeat of past embarrassments, with Pyongyang making agreements and then ignoring them.

That’s why both the United States and South Korea have been so cautious about returning to the six-party talks, with officials in Washington and Seoul emphasizing that Pyongyang must meet certain “pre-steps” in advance of the multi-nation talks. Those pre-steps have been left largely undefined, but on Friday, South Korean nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac, the chief negotiator with North Korea, said Pyongyang must cease its nuclear activities and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country.

“It’s a huge task to achieve,” Wi said during a lunch with several foreign reporters, “but a comprehensive approach is better than quick deals. It has to be a concrete road map.”

One U.S. expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely share his opinion, said that the pre-steps outlined by Wi set too high a bar. North Korea, he said, will want to save the major concessions on its uranium enrichment program until after the six-party talks resume.The talks were last held in December 2008, but they officially fell apart in April 2009 when North Korea tested a missile and walked out of the talks in response to international condemnation. The Thursday and Friday meetings in New York marked the first high-level discussions between the two nations in 18 months.

Scott Snyder wrote on his blog on Asia Unbound on the US requesting a different DPRK representative:

I support regular, high-level diplomatic contact with the DPRK based on close coordination with our South Korean allies primarily for the following reasons:

  1. The North Koreans need to hear firm statements of the U.S. position on North Korean issues directly from American diplomats and not just through the media;
  2. A lack of direct contact between the U.S. and DPRK might give China overconfidence that it can manipulate the situation on the ground in North Korea to the exclusion of the United States; and
  3. The exchange of views need not necessarily lead to negotiations if the timing is not right.

The lack of satisfactory results at the negotiating table underscores that negotiations by themselves are inadequate to achieve the U.S. objective of denuclearization, regardless of what the U.S. offers in return. This raises the question of whether Kim Kye-gwan is the right counterpart for U.S. negotiators. His longevity in the job shows he has earned the backing of his leadership, but from a U.S. perspective, the result of negotiations with Kim Kye-gwan has been an abject failure. As long as Pyongyang sends out Kim Kye-gwan as the regime’s face to the United States, there is little reason to harbor expectations that current contacts will yield results different from the past. The United States should insist on a new manand new instructionsfrom Pyongyang if the dialogue is to continue.

Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Hayes write in Nautilus on a mechanism in the US Nuclear Posture Review that could incite some long-term prayerful consideration among DPRK policymakers.

In short, the Obama Administration has created path for the DPRK to denuclearize in exchange for legally-binding commitments from the United States, irrespective of the DPRK’s putative alliance with China. That is, the NPR offers the DPRK safe harbor in the event that Pyongyang’s leaders denuclearize—something that was not possible in previous negotiations.
Moreover, should the DPRK insist that the negative security assurance be legally binding, then an additional possibility arises. Although a negative security assurance is only politically, not legally binding, the Obama Administration has signaled its willingness to codify such assurances in with regard to nuclear weapon free zones. Secretary Clinton announced at the NPT Review Conference that the Obama Administration is submitting to the Senate for ratification the protocols to African and South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zones, which legally bind the United States to provide such assurance to signatories. A Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, therefore, would offer the DPRK the ultimate prospect of a legally-binding negative security assurance from the United States in the event that it denuclearized.

Ironically, the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an authoritative statement on April 26, 2010 that contains its own cheerful version of the Warsaw Pact exclusion. It stated: “The DPRK is invariably maintaining the policy not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or threaten them with nuclear weapons as long as they do not join the act of invading or attacking us in conspiracy with nuclear weapons states.”

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