Kathleen E. Masterson and Peter Crail
A second round of bilateral nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea last month “narrowed differences” between the two countries on steps needed to resume multilateral denuclearization negotiations, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth told reporters Oct. 25.
“I am confident that, with continued effort on both sides, we can reach a reasonable basis of departure for formal negotiations for a return to the six-party process,” Bosworth said following the Oct. 24-25 talks in Geneva. He added, however, that there were still differences to overcome and additional time would be needed to reach agreement.
Last month’s meeting between Bosworth and North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan is part of the first series of high-level talks between the two countries since 2009. Earlier this year, China proposed a series of bilateral meetings between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea to revive the stalled six-party talks, which also involve China, Japan, and Russia. The first round of U.S.-North Korean talks took place in July after a similar meeting between North and South Korea one week earlier. (See ACT, September 2011.)
Bosworth was accompanied by Glyn Davies, the U.S. permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who has since replaced Bosworth as the special envoy to North Korea. Bosworth stepped down from his position following the Geneva meeting to resume full-time duties as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he had continued to serve on a part-time basis.
The latest round of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang comes on the heels of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the United States. During an Oct. 13 joint press conference with President Barack Obama, Lee said that he and Obama were “in complete agreement when dealing with North Korea,” stressing the “principled approach” pursued by the two countries to denuclearize North Korea.
Both countries insist that North Korea must take specific concrete measures, including verifiably halting its uranium-enrichment program under IAEA inspections and halting nuclear and missile testing, before multilateral negotiations can take place.
Although North Korea has publicly rejected preconditions for resuming the six-party talks, its leader, Kim Jong Il, has expressed a willingness to consider a moratorium on missile and nuclear weapons testing.
North Korea first publicly revealed a uranium-enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex last November. (See ACT, December 2010.) Uranium enrichment can be used to produce low-enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power reactors as well as weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). Pyongyang denied having a uranium-enrichment program for years despite long-running U.S. suspicions. North Korea is believed to maintain additional enrichment sites outside the Yongbyon complex.
The IAEA has not held inspections in North Korea since 2009 when Pyongyang ejected monitors after leaving the six-party talks.
Joel Wit, a former Department of State negotiator with North Korea, said it is important to restart talks with Pyongyang before it can dramatically build up its nuclear capabilities. “We are approaching a critical moment” regarding the North’s uranium-enrichment program, he warned in an Oct. 18 e-mail to Arms Control Today. He said that he did not believe Pyongyang has begun producing HEU yet, but that once it starts doing so, it will be far more difficult to convince Pyongyang to abandon the program.
The U.S. meeting with North Korea also comes after two Republican senators raised concerns about steps to resume the six-party talks that could involve material incentives for Pyongyang. In a Sept. 13 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, “We seek your written assurances that the administration will not provide any financial incentives to Pyongyang—including relief from sanctions, food aid, energy supplies, and other commercial goods—in exchange for participating in multilateral negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program.”
Reportedly because of the concerns cited in the letter, Kyl maintained a hold on the nomination of Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, to serve as ambassador to South Korea. The hold was lifted, and the Senate confirmed Kim Oct. 13, during Lee’s visit.
The Obama administration has not offered financial incentives for the resumption of talks, and Pyongyang has abandoned calls for the lifting of sanctions before it would re-engage in negotiations. However, North Korea has sought food aid to respond to food shortages. Washington and Seoul have maintained that Pyongyang must allow sufficient monitoring for any food aid before they provide such assistance. They have not linked such aid to the nuclear negotiations.
Despite the lack of agreement on restarting multilateral nuclear negotiations, the North in recent months has taken a softer approach to its dealings with the United States and South Korea. In addition to resuming the two sets of bilateral talks, Pyongyang has taken steps such as sending military officials to meet with U.S. counterparts in Bangkok in early October to discuss resuming efforts to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula also have eased in recent months, having reached a peak following North Korea’s suspected involvement in the sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan and the shelling of a South Korean border island in 2010.