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Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
U.S. Envoy Holds Talks in North Korea

Peter Crail

The Obama administration held its first senior-level meetings with North Korean officials Dec. 8-10 in an attempt to restart multilateral denuclearization talks Pyongyang abandoned in April.

The U.S. interagency delegation was led by Stephen Bosworth, the special representative for North Korea policy, who described the talks during a Dec. 16 press briefing as “quite positive.” He added, however, that it was not yet clear when and how the multilateral talks would be restarted. Bosworth met with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju and nuclear envoy Kim Gye Gwan.

Following a UN Security Council rebuke of North Korea’s April 5 rocket launch, Pyongyang renounced the six-party talks in which it had participated intermittently with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States since 2003. (See ACT, May 2009.) North Korea declared at that time that it would “never participate in such talks” again but appeared to back away from that position last summer. (See ACT, October 2009.)

According to Bosworth, North Korea indicated that it would like to resume the six-party talks and “agreed on the essential nature” of a September 2005 joint statement by the six countries. In the statement, North Korea committed to abandoning its nuclear weapons programs in return for a normalization of relations and economic aid. Bosworth noted that Beijing, as the chair of the multilateral talks, would lead further consultations to restart them. “I would expect that this process will move forward,” he said. No further talks between Washington and Pyongyang are currently scheduled.

While in Pyongyang, Bosworth delivered a letter from President Barack Obama to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Dec. 16 that the letter sought to convince Kim to “come back to the table and ultimately live up to” his country’s disarmament agreements.

Bosworth’s visit came just days before law enforcement authorities in Thailand seized about 35 tons of smuggled arms aboard a North Korean plane. Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told reporters Dec. 14 the cargo was bound for “a destination in the Middle East.”

Reportedly acting on a tip from the United States, Thai authorities inspected the plane Dec. 12 after it made an unscheduled landing in Bangkok. The authorities said the weapons included rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air rockets, and other heavy weapons. Panitan said that Thailand detained the crew of five, who were charged with the possession of heavy weapons and false cargo manifests. Police spokesman Pongsapat Pongcharoen told reporters Dec. 14 that the crew said they believed they were transporting oil drilling equipment.

North Korea has been subject to an extensive arms embargo since June, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1874 in response to that country’s May nuclear test. (See ACT, July/August 2009.) The resolution calls on states to inspect suspect North Korean transports and seize and destroy goods that violate the UN sanctions, including major military armaments and materials that could be used to produce missiles or nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. North Korea relies on such sales to obtain foreign currency.

The seizure was the second one under the resolution’s authority to be made public since passage of the resolution, following a similar interception of a North Korean arms shipment by the United Arab Emirates last August. (See ACT, September 2009.) India inspected a suspicious North Korean vessel in its territorial waters in August, but it was not found to be carrying contraband. The Thai interdiction was the first reported incident involving air cargo.

The arms seizure does not appear likely to influence discussions with North Korea. When asked about the incident, Bosworth said the issue will be handled by a UN committee overseeing the sanctions on North Korea, but that it shows how the sanctions are effective and important. He also said that, in his meetings with officials in Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow, the other six-party talks participants expressed strong support for continuing the sanctions on North Korea.

Following meetings in Seoul Dec. 17, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin told reporters that “the sanctions against North Korea must be fulfilled” until North Korea has halted its nuclear program.