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Hope of North Korea's Return to the Six Party Talks

Interviewee: Evans J.R. Revere, President and CEO, Korea Society
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 11, 2009

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A veteran State Department expert on Northeast Asia, Evans Revere says that the expectations for special envoy Stephen W. Bosworth's initial visit to Pyongyang were "probably pretty low." There were no dramatic results, such as North Korea's agreeing to immediately resume participation in the Six Party Talks on halting its nuclear weapons program. But Revere, who had been a Cyrus Vance Fellow in Diplomatic Studies at CFR, says "the North Koreans do not seem to have slammed the door in terms of coming back to the Six Party Talks, and, in fact, they may have left the door open just a bit more of a crack than it already was, and if that's the case, that's a positive thing."

President Obama's special representative on North Korean policy, Stephen W. Bosworth, has completed two days of talks in Pyongyang. He had a press conference in Seoul where he spoke in diplomatic niceties, saying, essentially, that it was a "candid and businesslike" meeting and they will hopefully have further meetings in the future, but nothing concrete was apparently achieved. He made it clear that the Obama administration was asking North Korea to come to the Six Party Talks to resume the negotiations on halting North Korea's nuclear program, and he got no commitment on this yet. What did you make of this meeting?

My sense is that it went pretty much as expected. I think everybody's expectations were pretty moderate, to put it lightly, probably pretty low in terms of what would come out of this initial encounter at the senior level between somebody from the Obama administration and the North Koreans. I think there was probably a lot of exploratory discussion that took place in this encounter seeking to explore North Korean willingness to come back to the Six Party Talks and to reaffirm its commitment to the agreements that had been made in previous rounds of those talks. The North Koreans almost certainly explored what the United States might be prepared to do to induce them to come back to the talks.

The fact that we had [no] announcements about the resumption of the Six Party [North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia] Talks means that Bosworth did not get what he had hoped for yet, although I wouldn't write off the possibility. It was very interesting in terms of Bosworth's press conference to hear him say that the North Koreans expressed an understanding of the value and the need for the Six Party Talks and the importance of the implementation of past agreements. While he didn't get the whole loaf, at least he seems to have gotten some North Korean buy-in to the existence of that loaf. Let's see where they take it from here. I've never thought that this was all going to get resolved in one meeting, and so it may take another contact or two to get the North Koreans to reaffirm and recommit and actually come back to the talks.

And what is it the North Koreans are looking for?

At a minimum--as they told the Chinese when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was there in October--they wanted to have a discussion with the United States to determine what the United States would be prepared to do in the context of bilateral relations before they would make their decision on the Six Party Talks. Translated into plain English, I think that means that the North Koreans were probably seeking to find out what sort of inducement the United States might be prepared to provide in order to bring North Korea back to the talks.

Like what? A peace treaty, economic aid?

We don't know what exactly their expectations were, and it may be that Ambassador Bosworth heard a little bit more about that, but normally the North Koreans expect some sort of provision of something substantive--food assistance, or economic assistance, or some sort of thing that the United States might do to bring them back to the table. Although the Obama administration has been extremely clear publicly--and, I suspect, privately even clearer--about their unwillingness to ... pay the North Koreans to do what they ought to be doing in the first place. And so this was an opportunity for the North Koreans to hear directly from the president's special representative what we are and are not prepared to do.

The North Koreans almost certainly explored what the United States might be prepared to do to induce them to come back to the talks.

Let's review the recent U.S.-North Korea relations. In August, former President Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to Pyongyang and got the release of the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been imprisoned for several months for crossing the border illegally. Clinton was given a dinner by Kim Jong-Il. Then some North Koreans came and visited with Governor Bill Richardson in New Mexico, who's been an envoy to them in the past, and then a senior nuclear negotiator, Ri Gun, came to the United States and met with many people, including you right?

Exactly, we were the co-host of his visit to the United States. He's the deputy of the nuclear negotiating team at the Six Party Talks. He's a long-time colleague of mine, and one of my counterparts from my days as a diplomat. He was the leader of the small delegation of Democratic People's Republic of Korea officials who came and spent a few days both on the West Coast and here in New York. He also had an opportunity while he was here to meet with U.S. government officials, including his counterparts at the State Department. During the course of his visit, he continued what some have described as "smile diplomacy," an effort to project a more positive and cooperative image, unlike the one that the North Koreans have been projecting over the past year or so.

Who did Bosworth actually meet in Pynogyang? Kim Jong-Il was not there, right?

Yes, but on this trip, Ambassador Bosworth met with someone who is quite high in the North Korean foreign ministry: Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan. And he met with the First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, who is in charge of the Six Party Talks. Gwan is one of the critical players in North Korea who has been viewed for quite some time as one of the main architects of North Korea's nuclear policy and one of the main architects of its relationship with us. And this is a person that we've had only limited access to over the years. Although we have met him on a number of occasions, it had been quite some time since we had engaged with him, and so this was an important opportunity for Ambassador Bosworth to meet a key player, someone who we believe has direct access to Kim Jung-il, and to sit down with him, apparently at some length, and have an intensive discussion of these issues.

Let's look at this from North Korea's point of view. What is it that's holding them back from just saying, "OK, let's go back to the talks and then see what we can get from it." In other words, what is it that they're waiting for?

The North Koreans are increasingly suspicious, and have been increasingly suspicious of U.S. intentions in recent years. I think there is fundamentally a lack of trust on the part of the North Koreans towards the United States, and vice versa of course. The North Koreans, dealing with the George W. Bush administration, encountered a U.S. administration that they regarded as extremely hostile to them, unwilling to engage them in direct dialogue, unwilling to compromise for the first several years of the Bush term. After four or five years of that sort of a lack of engagement, the Bush administration then changed its approach and adopted a more concessionary or conciliatory approach toward North Korea. That made some very limited progress, but I think at the end of the Bush administration, the North Koreans decided to step back from the process, to reassess where things were.

There was a pretty solid agreement wasn't there? In 2005 and in 2007?

The fact that we had [no] announcements about the resumption of the Six Party Talks means that Bosworth did not get what he had hoped for yet, although I wouldn't write off the possibility.

If you read the agreements on paper, yes, they were fairly solid agreements. But there was a decision on the part of the Bush administration to set aside two very critical areas of concern. One of those was the possibility that the North Koreans were working on a surreptitious uranium enrichment program, and the decision was made to defer that issue until a later date when it could be discussed in a better atmosphere. And then there was also the issue of North Korean cooperation with Syria and the construction of a nuclear reactor facility that was eventually destroyed by the Israeli air force. That was an issue of great concern to many in the United States, but was also set aside. The Bush administration then went back to the North Koreans and said, "We have to intensify the verification requirements of these agreements that we've reached." The North Koreans reacted very badly to that; they said that the United States was moving the goalposts unfairly and inappropriately, and so the North Koreans began to back away from their commitments as well.

With the onset of the new U.S. administration, it's likely that the North Koreans decided to do some goalpost moving of their own, and [they] adopted a much harder, more confrontational posture late last year and early this year. They began to walk away even more dramatically from the commitments that they had made in 2005-2007; began to test the new U.S. administration, talking about launching missiles and restarting its reactor and reprocessing facilities like the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea. They eventually fired off a series of missiles; they conducted another nuclear test after having kicked out the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors who were at the Yongbyon facility; they resumed reprocessing their plutonium. They also declared themselves, in effect, a de facto nuclear weapon state, and then they followed that up by stating that they would not give up their nuclear weapons and material even though they had committed to do so. They took a series of other steps, all of which put tremendous pressure on the other parties participating in the Six Party Talks. And the North Koreans also announced that they were pulling out of the Six Party Talks, that the Six Party Talks were dead. And that was essentially the situation up until President Clinton's visit in August, and it was at that point that the North Koreans began to signal that they might be willing to come back to the Six Party Talks, that they might be willing to reengage with the other parties and recommit themselves to their denuclearization obligations. That's pretty much what brought about, eventually, Bosworth's trip.

Looking ahead, what will happen next do you think?

Well, there's been no announcement that North Korea is coming back to the talks, but it was pretty evident from Ambassador Bosworth's comments that there was some movement on this issue. I think it will probably take a few days for us to be completely clear as to how much movement there was. Obviously, the North Koreans do not seem to have slammed the door in terms of coming back to the Six Party Talks, and, in fact, they may have left the door open just a bit more of a crack than it already was. If that's the case, it's a positive thing. And I suspect there will probably have to be some additional encounters. At what level, I don't know. I don't know if it will be at the Ambassador Bosworth level or whether lower-level officials will be able to follow up on these discussions, but I would expect that there would be an additional meeting (or two or three) to clarify positions. Hopefully at the end of the day, this would result in some sort of a North Korean announcement of its willingness to come back to the Six Party Talks, and this is a process I suspect will take weeks, and perhaps even months.

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