Kim Willing to Talk, Does Not Say When

Paul Kerr


North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told a senior South Korean official June 17 that Pyongyang is willing to participate in another round of six-party talks designed to resolve the crisis surrounding Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. However, no date has been set.

Kim told South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dongyoung that North Korea “could” return to the talks in July once Washington has “determined to recognize and respect” the North Korean regime. Kim also indicated that his government could eliminate its nuclear weapons program, according to a statement from Chung’s ministry.

The talks have been stalled since the participants, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, met in June 2004.

Kim and Chung also discussed a new South Korean proposal to undertake an economic project with the North if the nuclear issue is resolved. Seoul has not publicly disclosed the proposal’s details, which are apparently still being formulated. South Korea made a similar offer during two previous rounds of six-party talks.

North Korea did not commit to a date for future talks at a bilateral meeting held in Seoul a few days later. The two sides did agree “to take substantial measures to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue…as soon as a favorable atmosphere for the talks is forged,” according to a June 24 joint statement.

Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli told reporters June 23 that the United States is “continuing to work with our partners…to move North Korea to come up with a date” for the talks.

North Korea appears to be continuing its attempts to discern whether the United States has changed what Pyongyang refers to as a “hostile policy” of regime change.

Reflecting North Korea’s evident focus on U.S. rhetoric, a June 3 Foreign Ministry statement praised President George W. Bush’s referral to the North Korean leader as “Mr. Kim Jong Il” during a late May press conference. Bush’s use of the more respectful title, which he also used during a June 10 press conference following a summit meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, contrasted with his April reference to Kim as a “dangerous person” and a “tyrant.”

However, the Foreign Ministry also indicated that North Korea is waiting to determine whether Bush’s remarks have “put an end to the scramble” between administration officials who support a hard-line North Korea policy and those who have favored a more moderate approach.

Pyongyang’s apparent exploration of U.S. intent has been going on for several months. For example, the country’s Foreign Ministry complained in May that Washington was issuing conflicting statements about the true nature of its North Korea policy. Additionally, the Foreign Ministry argued June 2 that a comment from Vice President Dick Cheney criticizing Kim indicated Washington’s “intention not to recognize” the North Korean regime.

Nevertheless, Kim referred to Bush as “His Excellency” and stated that, in his view, the president would be “a good person to talk with.”

Kim also made what appears to be a new offer regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to Chung, the North Korean leader said that Pyongyang will “accept thorough inspection” of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after a nuclear deal is reached.

North Korea has previously offered to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for U.S. incentives. But in July 2004, then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that North Korean officials had rejected a U.S. demand during the last round of six-party talks for IAEA participation in verifying any nuclear deal. (See ACT, September 2004.)

Until December 2002, agency inspectors monitored North Korea’s nuclear facilities that had been frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States. North Korea ejected the inspectors that month and subsequently announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (See ACT, January/ February 2003.)

Kim also said that a 1992 agreement to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons is still “valid,” according to Chung. By contrast, North Korea in May 2003 called the agreement a “dead document.” Pyongyang has since claimed it is augmenting its nuclear arsenal. (See ACT, June 2003.)

Additionally, Stanford University professor John Lewis said June 6 that North Korean officials provided him with more details about their nuclear demands during his recent visit to the country. Lewis told National Public Radio that Pyongyang wants Washington to take such actions as ending its perceived commitment to defend South Korea with nuclear weapons if necessary. The discussions are to be conducted as mutual nuclear disarmament talks, Lewis said.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry stated March 31 that it wished to have disarmament talks “on an equal footing” because it is a “full-fledged nuclear weapons state.” The United States has withdrawn its nuclear weapons from South Korea, and South Korea has forsworn nuclear weapons as a party to the NPT.