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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
China Says N. Korea Wants Better Relations
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Peter Crail

North Korea wants to return to multilateral denuclearization talks and improve relations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said during an Oct. 10 press conference in Beijing.

Wen met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il Oct. 5 to discuss ways to bring Pyongyang back to multilateral talks on North Korea’s denuclearization. During the Oct. 10 briefing, he expressed concern that the chance for restarting those talks, which included Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States as well as China and North Korea, may not last.

“If we miss this opportunity, then we may have to make even more efforts further down the road,” Wen said.

According to an Oct. 5 report by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim told Wen during their meeting that his country was ready to hold multilateral talks “depending on the outcome” of bilateral discussions with the United States.

“The hostile relations between [North Korea] and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through the bilateral talks without fail,” KCNA reported Kim as saying.

Washington has indicated that it is willing to hold bilateral discussions with North Korea but only for the purpose of bringing that country back to the six-party talks. (See ACT, October 2009.) Pyongyang withdrew from those talks, which had been held intermittently since 2003, in April. (See ACT, May 2009.)

Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said during an Oct. 11 press briefing that the United States was “pleased” that Pyongyang reaffirmed its commitment to the talks. He noted, however, that North Korea did so “with some caveats that we’re going to have to explore in greater detail,” an apparent reference to Kim’s linkage between a return to the six-party talks and the outcome of discussions with Washington.

Department of State spokesman Ian Kelly said during an Oct. 20 briefing that there has been a standing invitation from North Korea for U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth to travel to Pyongyang for talks, but that Washington has not decided whether it would accept.

North Korea’s willingness to return to the talks does not appear to be the only U.S. condition for holding discussions with Pyongyang.

Campbell told reporters Oct. 14 that the United States and its allies in the region insist that Pyongyang honor the denuclearization pledges that it has made in the past. “So we’re going to need to see North Korea accepting those provisions for us to move forward in the course of the next several months,” he said.

North Korea has not indicated that it is willing to make such a recommitment. Although KCNA quoted Kim as telling Wen that Pyongyang’s “efforts to attain the goal of denuclearizing the peninsula remain unchanged,” North Korea has also signaled that it would expand its preconditions for denuclearization. Recent statements by North Korean officials and the country’s state media have tied Pyongyang’s denuclearization to broader global nuclear disarmament efforts.

In an English-language statement issued by the Foreign Ministry Sept. 30, North Korea said that its denuclearization “is unthinkable even in a dream as long as there exists the sources that compelled it to have access to nukes,” reiterating Pyongyang’s claim that it developed nuclear weapons in response to “the U.S. nuclear threat.”

The statement was delivered in response to the UN Security Council’s Sept. 24 adoption of a U.S.-sponsored resolution outlining steps that the international community should take to work toward a “world without nuclear weapons.” (See ACT, October 2009.) North Korea rejected that resolution in its Sept. 30 statement, calling it “a double-standards document” which “failed to fully reflect” an international consensus.

At the same time, the statement reiterated that the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung, called for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, claiming that Pyongyang would pursue that goal in the context of global nuclear disarmament.

North Korea reiterated this broader condition for its denuclearization in an Oct. 14 commentary by Pyongyang’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper. “In order to make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free, it is necessary to make a comprehensive and total elimination of all the nuclear weapons on earth,” said the editorial, which also highlighted the need for the United States to take steps toward nuclear disarmament first.

The North Korean statements go beyond Pyongyang’s previous denuclearization commitment. In a 2005 joint statement by the countries involved in the six-party talks, North Korea pledged denuclearization in return for an affirmation that there are no nuclear weapons in South Korea, assurances against attack by the United States, and pledges by Washington and Tokyo to work toward normalizing relations with Pyongyang.

Although the United States has not made plans for formal bilateral discussions with North Korea, the two countries recently held informal talks in New York. State Department Spokesman Noel Clay said in an Oct. 24 statement that Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy for the six-party talks, met that same day with Ri Gun, director-general of the North American affairs bureau of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, “to convey our position on denuclearization and the six party talks.” Ri visited the United States at the end of October to attend conferences hosted by nongovernmental organizations.