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– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
North Korea, U.S. Seen Preparing for Talks

Peter Crail

The United States is ready to hold direct talks with North Korea on denuclearization, potentially paving the way for the Obama administration’s first formal discussions with Pyongyang, U.S. officials said in September.

Department of State spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Sept. 11 that the United States is “prepared to enter into a bilateral discussion with North Korea.” He added that such talks would be “designed to convince North Korea to come back to the six-party process and to take affirmative steps towards denuclearization.”

In April, Pyongyang declared that it would “never participate” in the six-way talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, following the UN Security Council’s condemnation of a North Korean rocket launch earlier that month. (See ACT, May 2009.) The other five participants maintain that North Korea must return to the talks, which have been held intermittently since 2003 to work toward the denuclearization of the KoreanPeninsula.

Crowley said that Washington has not made any decisions on when or where such a meeting would occur but that “some decisions” would be made “in the next couple of weeks.”

U.S. allies in the region indicated that they approved of U.S.-North Korean talks on the condition that they were aimed at restarting the six-party process.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young told reporters Sept. 14, “The government is not against a U.S.-North Korean bilateral meeting if it does not replace six-party talks and expedites the six-party process aimed at denuclearizing North Korea.”

Similarly, the newly appointed Japanese foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, said during a Sept. 18 press conference, “The bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea can be somewhat fruitful only for the purpose of pushing forward the six-party talks.”

Japan and South Korea have been wary of U.S. bilateral initiatives with North Korea in recent years. Tokyo and Seoul expressed particular dismay last year when the United States concluded bilateral understandings with North Korea without carrying out what they felt was an appropriate level of consultation. (See ACT, November 2008.)

Japanese and South Korean diplomats said in September that the United States should consult fully with Tokyo and Seoul before any bilateral discussions in order to coordinate their approach.

Washington appears to have taken steps in that direction. Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, visited the region in early September, and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg made a similar trip to the region a few weeks later.

Evans Revere, former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, now president of the Korea Society, said Sept. 10 that the U.S. visits demonstrate that “coordination is central to the new U.S. approach” to North Korea. Noting that it would not be possible to address fundamental issues, such as a formal peace agreement with North Korea, without the multilateral process, he said, “Washington appears to be sticking to its guns on the six-party talks.”

According to former National Security Council Director for Asian Affairs Victor Cha, now Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser and Korea Chair, the distinction between bilateral and six-party talks is “somewhat of a false choice.” Noting that bilateral and multilateral talks were held under the Bush administration, Cha said in a Sept. 16 e-mail that “substantive negotiations, if ever restarted, will take place in both venues.” He added, however, that the six-party talks will remain in some form “as the only multilateral security architecture ever created in postwar East Asian history.”

Although current and former officials have stressed the relevance of the six-party talks for the regional security architecture, one former official suggested that the process may also carry benefits for influencing North Korea’s internal dynamics. Kenneth Quinones, a State Department official involved in North Korean affairs during the Clinton administration, said Sept. 18 that multilateral talks would enhance the influence of the country’s foreign ministry on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, whose focus is otherwise monopolized by the military leadership. “I remain optimistic that Pyongyang will return to the talks, but first Kim Jong Il must reassure his generals that North Korea would benefit from them,” he said.

The North Korean leader has recently expressed greater interest in multilateral discussions. China’s official Xinhua News Agency quoted Kim Sept. 18 as telling Chinese special envoy Dai Bingguo, “North Korea would like to solve relevant issues through bilateral and multilateral talks.” Pyongyang had previously indicated that it would only be willing to hold discussions with the United States on a bilateral basis.

The North Korean announcement follows a series of overtures during the summer attempting to improve relations with Washington and Seoul, including the Aug. 4 release of two U.S. journalists held on charges of espionage. (See ACT, September 2009.)

Revere said that Pyongyang’s shift seemed to come from a recognition that the country was suffering from a “public relations problem.” He noted in particular the strength of the international sanctions imposed on North Korea following its actions earlier this year. “Targeting arms sales has got to have an impact on their income stream,” he said.

The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1874 in June following North Korea’s second nuclear test. That resolution required a wide range of sanctions on North Korean exports, imports, and financial activities and provided extensive guidelines on the interdiction of North Korean ships suspected of violating the sanctions.

Commenting on the impact of that resolution, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice told reporters Sept. 14 that the coordinated response to carry out the sanctions “sends a strong signal that the international community is vigilant, united, and determined to see these sanctions fully implemented.”

Although only 37 of 192 member states had submitted a report to the United Nations on their work to implement Resolution 1874 as of September 30, a number of incidents in recent months have demonstrated efforts to enforce the North Korea sanctions. (See ACT, September 2009.)

These efforts include the July seizure by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of a North Korean ship found to have been smuggling illicit arms to Iran. UAE authorities reportedly found rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons aboard the Australian-registered, Bahamas-flagged cargo vessel ANL Australia.

Resolution 1874 prohibits North Korea from exporting “all arms and related material” and calls on states to “exercise vigilance” regarding the transfer of small arms and light weapons, such as those found on the vessel.

Rice said Sept. 14 that the UN committee overseeing the sanctions on North Korea is “very actively engaged in investigating” the ANL Australia incident.

China, North Korea’s primary trading partner, also appears to be taking some steps to implement the sanctions. Diplomatic sources told Arms Control Today in September that China stopped a shipment of small arms from North Korea bound for Syria. The sources indicated, however, that the shipment was sent back to North Korea rather than confiscated.

Another diplomatic source could not corroborate the account of the interdiction but said “the Chinese are serious” about implementing the sanctions.

The UN restrictions on importing small arms from North Korea are not as strict as those on other forms of weaponry.

India also inspected a suspect North Korean ship in August. (See ACT, September 2009.)

In a possible signal of North Korea’s frustration with the sanctions, Pyongyang sent a letter to the president of the Security Council objecting to the UN’s punitive actions under Resolution 1874. Under the council’s rotating presidency, the United States was president for September. The Sept. 4 letter said that the resolution violated North Korean sovereignty and that Pyongyang “will never be bound by this resolution.”

The letter added, however, that North Korea was prepared for “both dialogue and sanctions.”

In addition to reacting to the UN sanctions, the North Korean letter cautioned that the country had taken “countermeasures to oppose sanctions,” stating that it is in the “final phase” of reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel and that “extracted plutonium is being weaponized.”

North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium in the spent fuel from its Yongbyon reactor for an additional one or two nuclear weapons. (See ACT, October 2008.) Pyongyang’s reprocessing campaigns in prior years provided it with enough plutonium for up to 12 weapons, according to expert estimates.

Pyongyang also stated for the second time that it was engaged in a uranium-enrichment effort, claiming that “experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase.” Pyongyang first admitted to working on the process in June. (See ACT, July/August 2009.) The United States and its allies have long suspected that Pyongyang was engaged in such efforts, which could provide the country with another path to nuclear weapons. (See ACT, May 2003.)

It is unclear what North Korea means by referring to uranium enrichment as experimental, a term it used in conjunction with the process when it first admitted to carrying out such work in June. At that time, Pyongyang said that the process would be used to provide fuel for light-water reactors.

Cha characterized the recent North Korea statements regarding enrichment as significant because they constitute a formal admission of a uranium-enrichment program, which Pyongyang previously denied. He said the admission is not likely to have an impact on the resumption of talks.

Japan May Shift Tactics

In addition to the new approaches signaled by the United States and North Korea, former U.S. officials and diplomatic sources said in September that the new Japanese government, which came into office Sept. 16, may shift tactics in how it approaches Pyongyang, even as Tokyo’s overall strategy remains the same. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has said that it remains focused on restarting the six-party talks and strengthening sanctions on North Korea.

The DPJ won enough seats in the Aug. 30 election to serve as Japan’s new ruling party, replacing the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed the country almost continuously for about 60 years.

The United States is approaching the DPJ government on the North Korean issue to seek “any revised thinking that Japan might have on this topic,” Crowley said Sept. 17.

During the six-party talks, Tokyo insisted that it had to see progress in resolving the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s before Japan would contribute to the incentives provided to Pyongyang by the other four countries in return for North Korea’s denuclearization efforts.

During the six-party talks, North Korea often complained that Japan was withholding energy assistance pledged under six-party agreements. (See ACT, March 2007.)

Revere said the new Japanese government may have an opening now to alter its approach to North Korea. He said that the abduction issue had “crowded out other core concerns” for Tokyo, including the threat to Japan from North Korean missile capabilities.

Quinones, now an academic in Japan, similarly said that because the public attention on the abduction issue has subsided and is being replaced by economic concerns, the Japanese government could re-engage North Korea in bilateral discussions, including providing energy assistance if Pyongyang returned to the six-party talks.

He also said recent back-channel contacts between the new Japanese government and North Korea may signal to the Japanese public a possible moderation of the Japanese stances toward Pyongyang.

In a rare move, North Korea made a conciliatory gesture toward the new Japanese government. Kim Yong Nam, who holds North Korea’s second-highest office, said in a Sept. 10 interview with Kyodo News that the two countries could have “fruitful relations” if the new government respects a 2002 bilateral declaration on improving ties.

Japanese officials have ruled out early bilateral talks with Pyongyang.