U.S. Considers New North Korea Talks

Peter Crail

The United States is in discussions with its diplomatic partners in Asia on the potential resumption of talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, U.S. officials said last month.

They cautioned that progress is unlikely in the near future, as Pyongyang still must meet certain conditions before negotiations could resume. During visits to China, Japan, and South Korea for discussions on the possible renewal of denuclearization talks, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth told reporters Sept. 15 that “it is going to take some time” for negotiations to resume, adding that North Korea must show that it is prepared to take “specific and concrete” actions.

When asked during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing the following day what conditions need to be met before talks could restart, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said “an essential first step…needs to be some sort of re-engagement between North and South Korea.”

Tensions between the two countries increased dramatically in March with the sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan, believed to have been caused by a North Korean torpedo attack. (See ACT, May 2010.) U.S. and South Korean officials said following the suspected attack that efforts to re-engage North Korean on the nuclear issue would need to be delayed until the incident was resolved.

Although North Korea has denied any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, making an early resolution of the incident unlikely, the two Koreas have engaged in some efforts to improve relations in recent weeks. Bosworth said during a Sept. 16 press briefing that “there is some reason to be somewhat optimistic that [North-South re-engagement] has begun.”

North and South Korea held a series of discussions in September over the possibility of reuniting families separated since the 1950-1953 Korean War. Those talks are scheduled to continue this month.

U.S. officials have said that in addition to improving relations with Seoul, Pyongyang must show that it is prepared to make progress on denuclearization. Campbell told the Senate panel that Washington has sought “clear signals” from Pyongyang that it would be willing to fulfill its commitments made in the six-party talks in 2005.

In September 2005, North Korea reached an agreement with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to abandon its nuclear weapons and nuclear programs in return for political and economic benefits. Pyongyang withdrew from those negotiations in April 2009 after the UN Security Council rebuked its rocket launch earlier that month.

In a Sept. 15 op-ed in The New York Times following his unofficial visit to North Korea in August, former President Jimmy Carter said that he received “clear, strong signals” from Pyongyang that it wants to restart negotiations on a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War and on denuclearization. North Korean officials “referred to the six-party talks as being ‘sentenced to death but not yet executed,’” Carter said.

Carter met with North Korea’s second-most senior official, Kim Yong Nam, among other key officials for discussions while securing the release of Aijalon Gomes, a detained U.S. citizen accused of trespassing into North Korean territory in January. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was visiting China at the time of Carter’s trip.

North Korean officials have previously said that Pyongyang would be willing to resume negotiations once sanctions are lifted. (See ACT, March 2010.) The UN Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions on North Korea. Aimed at its nuclear and missile programs, the sanctions include an arms embargo, financial restrictions, and a ban on exports of luxury goods. Bosworth told reporters Sept. 15 that the discussion of lifting sanctions is “very premature.” Washington expanded its own sanctions on North Korea in recent weeks.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Aug. 30 that expanded financial restrictions on North Korean entities believed to be involved in illicit activities, including money laundering and trafficking in arms, luxury goods, and narcotics. The same day, the Department of the Treasury sanctioned eight additional North Korean organizations and individuals for involvement in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Some former U.S. officials have cautioned against easing sanctions in return for talks with Pyongyang because North Korea is not prepared to abandon its nuclear program. Michael Green, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the Bush administration, said in a Sept. 23 e-mail that direct talks with North Korea “are not worth reducing sanctions or curtailing other defensive measures since the prospects of these contacts leading to denuclearization in the near term are close to zero.”

But Joel Wit, who served as the U.S. coordinator for a 1994 bilateral denuclearization agreement with North Korea, said that there were greater risks to missing an opportunity to lower tensions and re-engage with North Korea and that Washington will need to be ready to ease some sanctions in the context of any renewed negotiations.

“The sanctions can communicate resolve and show that the temperature is rising,” he said in a Sept. 24 interview, but they “will not be effective in stopping a determined proliferator.”