Is North Korea Ready for Talks?

This week’s meeting between U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials signaled an opening for North Korea to rejoin the suspended talks on its nuclear program. CFR’s Scott Snyder discusses the talks and says it’s unlikely the dialogue will resume soon.

January 19, 2012 4:14 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Following a meeting Tuesday, senior diplomatic officials from the United States, Japan, and South Korea said that "a path is open" for Pyongyang to rejoin the suspended Six-Party talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear program. But CFR Senior Fellow Scott A. Snyder says the talks are unlikely to resume soon. Snyder says North Korea, in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death, is waiting to see if a more favorable government will be elected in South Korea this year and is unwilling to improve inter-Korean relations, a U.S. requirement for resumption of dialogue with Pyongyang. "The North Koreans, by taking differing positions toward the United States and South Korea, appear to be trying to divide the United States and South Korea," says Snyder, "and the significance of the meeting in Washington Tuesday was to signal that that would not be acceptable from the U.S., South Korean, and Japanese points of view."

It’s been a month since Kim Jong-il died. There had been some speculation that the North Koreans might launch some provocative military action. But that has not happened.

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The North Korean leadership has been trying to present an image of continuity and stability. And in all probability the main focus is on just trying to ensure that developments are not complicated internally as they move through this leadership transition.

Following a top-level meeting in Washington between U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials dealing with North Korean affairs, a communiqué was released saying that "a path was open" for North Korea to reenter the Six-Party talks, suspended since 2009. What is the likelihood of that happening?

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We are probably still not close to the resumption of Six-Party talks. There are a number of things that the United States has indicated would have to happen before that would occur, including an improvement in inter-Korean relations and steps that North Korea would take to show its tangible commitment to denuclearization.

Kim Jong-nam’s comments, as they are coming out, may represent the biggest potential threat to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power.

In recent weeks, the North Korean National Defense Commission following Kim Jong-il’s funeral made a rather tough statement regarding the future of relations or dialogue with the Lee Myung-bak administration in South Korea. At the same time, there have been signals from Pyongyang showing a willingness to resume dialogue with both the United States and Japan separately. The North Koreans may be interested in moving forward with the United States and/or Japan while not addressing inter-Korean tensions.

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Is that a propaganda move to make clear they’re not interested in unification with the South?

The North Koreans are focused on post-Lee Myung-bak South Korea. They may hope that at the end of this year South Korea may elect a leader that is more friendly to North Korea than Lee Myung-bak has been. There are national parliamentary elections in April, and the presidential election will occur in December.

Are relations with North Korea a prime issue in the elections?

I don’t think the relationship with North Korea is going to be the number one agenda item in the election. It’s really going to be much more about issues related to economic reform, welfare, and the economic situation in South Korea. And it just so happens that progressives who appear to have a slight advantage would also take a more accommodating approach toward North Korea.

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Have you seen reports of this new book by a Tokyo-based journalist apparently quoting Kim Jong-il’s oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, in which he blasts his half brother and new leader Kim Jong-un? What do you make of this?

Kim Jong-nam’s comments, as they are coming out, may represent the biggest potential threat to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power.

Kim Jong-nam has been making some very strong statements about North Korea’s future and about his own assessment of Kim Jong-un’s ability to consolidate power inside North Korea. Kim Jong-nam wouldn’t be able to make those kinds of statements unless he perceived that there may be an internal debate among North Korea’s elite. I don’t think that he would be able to make those kinds of statements without some measure of confidence that he could do so without physical retribution from the North Korean leadership or from his brother.

Do you think this book actually has some standing in North Korea?

I do. This book consists of a series of exchanges that has gone on for some years between Kim Jong-nam and the journalist, Yoji Gomi. I know the journalist in question, and Kim Jong-nam has been making periodic statements to other media in recent years that are consistent with the tone of the statements that are being reported in this book.

Kim Jong-nam, as reported, believes that his brother Kim Jong-un is not qualified to lead the country and unless they have economic reforms, the country will collapse. But if they have economic reforms it may collapse also, right?

He’s made a variety of statements that all point in that direction. He thinks that Kim Jong-un’s succession to power is unsustainable and will likely result in control by the military with Kim Jong-un as a symbol or as a puppet. And he believes the country can’t sustain itself without economic reform.

There was an effort several years ago to have economic reforms in North Korea. What happened?

In 2001 and 2002, there were some partial steps toward reform that apparently faced resistance internally. Kim Jong-nam is also saying in this exchange with the Japanese journalist that the source of his rift with his father was over the question of whether North Korea should pursue economic reforms.

He essentially argues that after he had come back from his education in Switzerland, he was arguing the country needed to go in a different direction, and that resulted in his marginalization from the power circles in North Korea.

What is North Korea’s economy like right now? Are people really starving or is it not that bad?

It depends on where you are and who you are. The reports from those who have visited Pyongyang are that things are looking pretty good and we know that in preparation for 2012--the hundredth anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth [founder of communist North Korea]--there’s been a lot of effort to spruce up the external environment in Pyongyang.

But at the same time, in the rest of the country and among certain segments of the population, the conditions have not improved. There are clearly pockets of poverty and starvation inside North Korea that have been exposed through visits by international humanitarian delegations.

Before his death, Kim Jong-il had authorized discussions with the United States about food aid. What’s the status of that? Is that conditioned on North Korea stopping all its nuclear activity?

The North Koreans, by taking differing positions toward the United States and South Korea, appear to be trying to divide the United States and South Korea.

Another statement that the North Korean leadership has made through its media is related to these talks. In that statement, the North Koreans suggest that the United States has linked provision of food assistance to the resumption of nuclear talks. The U.S. negotiators suggest that it’s actually the North Koreans that have linked provision of food assistance to talks that occurred in July and October of last year. And in fact, there was a third round that was supposed to occur just a week after Kim Jong-il died and so, those didn’t happen.

The fact the North Koreans publicly acknowledged those talks could be taken as a signal that the North Koreans want to come back to the table. They essentially complained that the United States wasn’t willing to put enough food on the table to justify their return to talks.

But does the United States want North Korea to suspend its nuclear activity before these talks would begin?

The United States wanted North Korea to take a number of pre-steps prior to the resumption of nuclear talks, including acknowledgement that it would address --or halt--its uranium enrichment program, progress from which had been revealed by a visit by Siegfried Hecker of Stanford to North Korea in November 2010. In addition, the United States had requested that North Korea not engage in additional nuclear and missile tests and that the inter-Korean relationship be stabilized--developments that should occur prior to resumption of nuclear negotiations.

So that’s why you’re not anticipating any early resumption of these talks.

The fundamental issue at this point is whether or not inter-Korean relations can improve in sync with the resumption of nuclear dialogue. The North Koreans, by taking differing positions toward the United States and South Korea, appear to be trying to divide the United States and South Korea, and the significance of the meeting in Washington Tuesday was to signal that that would not be acceptable from the U.S., South Korean, and Japanese points of view.

The other piece of this is that China has not been very cooperative or willing to coordinate with the United States and South Korea in any concrete way following Kim Jong-il’s death. And so, the trilateral meeting also carries significance implicitly to the lack of progress that has occurred in terms of U.S. and South Korean engagement with China.

In other words, the Chinese don’t seem to be ready to put any pressure on the North Koreans right now?

That’s right. There was a trilateral foreign ministers meeting in 2010 following North Korea’s artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island, and the Chinese were very concerned about the environment at that time. But there emerged some differences in the Chinese-preferred approach and the approach of the United States and South Korea. And so, this trilateral set of meetings, in a way, highlights that the United States and South Korea and Japan can work with each other on these issues, and it also represents a kind of way of appealing to China to take an approach that is more in concert with the other neighbors of North Korea.


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