Allies Seek to Restart North Korea Talks

Paul Kerr

Almost one year after the last round of six-party talks, diplomatic tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program continue to mount. No new talks are scheduled, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program continues unhindered, and there are signs that the government may test a nuclear weapon. The United States and the other four participants in the six-party talks are still attempting to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table, but they continue to grapple with persistent disagreements regarding negotiating tactics.

Nevertheless, a May 13 meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials suggests that another round may take place. Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks, and Jim Foster, director of the Department of State’s Office of Korean Affairs, held a “working level” meeting in New York with North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Pak Gil Yon, and his deputy, Han Song Ryol.

State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher told reporters May 19 that DeTrani and Foster “reiterated” the administration’s North Korea policy and urged Pyongyang to return to the talks. The six parties, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, have met twice as a group since their first meeting in August 2003. (See ACT, September 2003.)

U.S. and North Korean officials periodically hold working level meetings in New York to clarify policy positions, Boucher explained. The Bush administration has repeatedly refused to engage in bilateral negotiations with North Korea, stating that such discussions should be confined to the six-party talks.

Boucher said that the United States requested the meeting, but did not explain why. However, he indicated that the request followed the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s May 8 request to meet directly with U.S. officials in order to confirm reports that the United States will recognize North Korea as a “sovereign state” and hold bilateral talks “within the framework of the six-party talks.”

The two sides discussed both of these issues, Boucher said. The United States has already taken actions that appear to satisfy the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s stated demands. U.S. officials have held bilateral discussions with their North Korean counterparts on the sidelines of each six-party meeting, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN May 9 that “the United States of course recognizes that North Korea is sovereign.”

Rice has made similar statements during the past several months as part of what has been widely regarded as an effort to send a positive signal to Pyongyang. However, the two governments had not directly discussed the issue since a working-level meeting last December.

Both sides appear to have taken small steps to reach common ground. A State Department official told Arms Control Today May 24 that the U.S. statements regarding North Korea’s sovereignty could be seen as a way of “implicitly saying” that the United States is not pursuing what Pyongyang charges is a “hostile policy” of “regime change.” Pyongyang frequently asserts that this policy not only includes a planned U.S. military attack but also measures such as economic pressure. (See ACT, December 2004.) Pyongyang has previously stated that it would not return to the talks unless Washington demonstrates that it intends to reverse this policy.

Administration officials have stated repeatedly that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea, but have rarely addressed other potential methods of regime change.

For its part, North Korea seems to have dropped its conditions for returning to the talks. Those conditions have recently included a demand that Rice apologize for referring to Pyongyang as one of several “outposts of tyranny” during her January 2005 confirmation hearings, as well as a request for President George W. Bush to state publicly that Washington will accept “peaceful coexistence” with Pyongyang. (See ACT, May 2005.)

The extent to which U.S. policy has actually changed, however, is unclear. A congressional source familiar with the matter told Arms Control Today May 19 that the recent U.S. statements regarding Pyongyang’s sovereignty do not constitute “much of a change,” but acknowledged that they seem to go beyond the administration’s previous non-invasion assurances.

Bush’s recent rhetoric has not served to clarify U.S. policy. Although he indicated continued U.S. support for the talks during an April 28 press conference, he also referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a “dangerous person” and a “tyrant.”

Bush argued forcefully for combating “tyranny” in his January inaugural address. (See ACT, March 2005.)

To date, however, the United States has not persuaded North Korea to return to the talks. In its first public statement regarding the New York meeting, the country’s foreign ministry announced May 22 that Pyongyang “will continue to closely follow the U.S. attitude” and convey its decision regarding the talks “when an appropriate time comes.”

However, the statement added that U.S. officials’ “disturbing outbursts” subsequent to the meeting have caused “confusion” about the true nature of the Bush administration’s North Korea policy. As an example, the foreign ministry cited a May 15 statement from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that the United States will continue to “pressure” North Korea.

Allies Urge U.S. Flexibility
The May 13 meeting followed repeated calls by the other participants in the six-party talks for the United States to show more flexibility in its approach.

Warning that it cannot wait indefinitely for the process to yield results, the United States has continued to exhort the other governments to pressure North Korea to return to the negotiations.

Bush is to meet South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun June 10 to discuss “the way forward on North Korea,” the White House said. In working-level talks May 16-19, South Korea failed to persuade its northern neighbor to rejoin the negotiations. The two Koreas, however, agreed to hold higher-level talks June 21-24, and Seoul agreed to provide Pyongyang with 200,000 tons of fertilizer.

Administration officials have suggested that they may ask the UN Security Council to take up the matter, a move that could lead to the imposition of sanctions on North Korea, but Washington has not set a deadline for abandoning the talks.

The other participants have publicly agreed that the talks cannot continue indefinitely and have left open the possibility of taking the issue to the Security Council. Most have also publicly warned Pyongyang against conducting a nuclear test, even though they appear to be less concerned that North Korea will take such a drastic measure.

Nevertheless, U.S. efforts to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang continue to meet resistance from other participants who have, to varying degrees, continued to show greater enthusiasm for engaging North Korea.

For example, senior Chinese diplomat Yang Xiyu articulated Beijing’s most pointed criticism to date of the administration’s negotiating stance. Yang told The New York Times May 12 that “a basic reason” for the talks’ lack of progress “lies in the lack of cooperation from the U.S. side.”

In particular, Yang argued that Bush’s reference to the North Korean leader as a tyrant undermined efforts to persuade North Korea that the Bush administration is serious about negotiating. He also questioned the effectiveness of tactics, such as economic sanctions, to pressure North Korea and suggested that Washington and Pyongyang use an “informal channel” to discuss the situation.

The United States has previously altered its negotiating approach in response to similar prodding. For example, it presented a formal proposal, which included several incentives for North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs, at the last round of talks partly because other participants had urged Washington to test North Korea’s intentions. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)