Pritchard: Latest Talks on North Korea ‘Successful’ Due to Major Changes by United States

August 08, 2005

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.

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North Korea

Charles L. (Jack) Pritchard, a former top U.S. negotiator with North Korea, who quit the State Department in protest against the Bush administration’s reluctance to deal directly with North Korea, says there has been a major change in U.S. policy toward Pyongyang since Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State.

Her promotion, along with a high-level reassessment that the current policy of avoiding direct talks had failed, were two parts of a three-part change. The third, which he gives major importance to, was the appointment of career diplomat Christopher Hill to head the U.S. team at the talks in Beijing.

“Those three things in combination have resulted in the first true set of negotiations,” Pritchard, currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, says. “A great deal has been accomplished. It has laid the groundwork. If there is going to be a diplomatic resolution, this is the path on which you will find it.”

Pritchard says the just-concluded talks in Beijing were “successful.” He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on August 8, 2005.

The six-party talks in Beijing adjourned on Sunday without a hoped-for draft of principles, but the parties agreed to reconvene the week of August 29. It’s unclear whether as a result of this, the talks ended positively or negatively. In other words, is the glass half full, or half empty?

My view is that this is a glass that is more than half full. We should compare these talks with what had been going on for the last two and a half years, where there have been three brief formal meetings, a three-party meeting involving China, North Korea and the United States, and a couple of working meetings between the United States and North Korea, none of which I would describe as a negotiating session. There really is no comparison with what had gone on in Beijing previously. What went on in Beijing in this just-concluded fourth round was like night and day. This has been a successful procedural round of negotiations.

We don’t have all the details of the substance. We’ve got a lot of information that has come out. It may be as the different delegations go home and report, we may find slightly different assessments that on a substantive basis there is a reason to be upbeat or downbeat for the long term. But on a procedural basis, they have established an atmosphere and working relationship among the six parties that allows all of them to feel a contribution has been made.

This round of talks has shown that the six-party process is allowing all six partners to participate at some level, some more so than others. There is some question, for example, on the value of the Russian participation. But we will set that aside and concentrate mostly on the South Koreans, the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the United States. There have been two main dialogues taking place: multilateral and bilateral. If a deal is going to be reached, this is the methodology that will get you there.

In the past, you have been quite critical of the Bush administration’s approach to these talks.

I have indeed.

What do you think happened on the way to these talks?

I think three things happened, at different levels: First and most important, I believe that at the highest levels involving the president, an assessment of their policy toward North Korea was made and the answer to that assessment was that it had failed, and there was no prospect of succeeding by the method they had been following.

That opened the door to the second level of changes that has taken place, which had to do with the move of Condoleezza Rice from national security adviser to secretary of state. As secretary she has a very public and personal responsibility for the success of American foreign policy. She has very quickly grasped that she does not want to be a failure and quite the contrary, wants to succeed, and in order to succeed the administration has to do something differently. That then goes to the third level, and perhaps the most significant: the appointment of Christopher Hillas assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who is the head of the delegation in the North Korean talks and who does the actual negotiating.

He has the professional background, the proper demeanor, and the intensity. Hill has outmaneuvered and gone well beyond the constraints that had been put in place by hard-line elements in the Bush administration. He has done a marvelous job. Nobody should take any credit away from him.

Those three things in combination have resulted in the first true set of negotiations. A great deal has been accomplished. It has laid the groundwork. If there is going to be a diplomatic resolution, this is the path on which you will find it.

Specifically, what was the major change in the United States’ position?

If you go back to the presidential debates in 2004, a question was asked about North Korea. [Democratic candidate] John Kerry said, in effect, that “I think we should have a stronger bilateral component to the six-party process.” The president essentially said “nonsense, it’s six-party, [and] we are going to have nothing to do with the North Koreans in a bilateral way at all.”

What has happened in the last several months is that the individual spokesmen in the White House and the State Department, as the line has changed at the top, have signaled publicly that this is OK for direct talks, so long as it is in the context of the six-party talks. But if you wanted to take a look at this in a critical fashion you would say exactly what critics were saying for a long time, and that the president must have reversed himself. But I think it is a losing battle to try to assign blame, to get the administration to admit the president changed course.

Rice was asked on the [NewsHour with Jim] Lehrer show recently, “Haven’t you changed your tactics?” Her answer was, “No, this is what we have been doing all along.” There had previously been contacts between James Kelly, the former head of the [U.S.] delegation, and the North Koreans. This is not even close to being the truth, but it doesn’t matter. They are not going to admit a mistake. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is what is being done currently and in the future.

Did the North Koreans change their position as far as you can tell?

They have done a couple of things. First of all, they have done some things publicly that if you were a negotiator for the North Koreans you would probably be biting your tongue: “Why did my leader make that announcement that our president for life, dearly departed Kim Il-Sung, had a death-bed wish for a nuclear-free peninsula? We really want to give up our nuclear weapons and we are quite prepared to rejoin the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and to have IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors.” These are quite wonderful put-in-your-pocket kinds of things that a U.S. negotiator just grabs hold of.

When did Kim Jong-Il say this?

He said it after meeting with the South Koreans in June.

And why do you think the North Koreans came back to the negotiating table?

The decision by the North Koreans to come back to the talks was not made because of a South Korean offer for electrical energy, or because of what the United States was doing differently. They had made a fundamental decision to come back as part of their management of relations with the Chinese. That they stayed for thirteen days, and engaged in the process without walking away, is a reflection on their appreciation of the manner in which Ambassador Hill conducted himself as head of the U.S. delegation.

So, what do you think will happen when the talks resume at the end of August? Do you think we might get some real progress?

The problem, from my point of view, is that while trying to get a statement of principle is an admirable thing to do, the North Koreans value those things very highly and will hold themselves and the United States accountable. It is not a simple document. And secondly, what we are talking about is important to the United States as part of an endgame resolution. But the North Koreans are less likely to give way in the beginning, but more likely at the end. I’m not convinced that when the talks reconvene there will be an agreement signed quickly.

So this may go on for months?

I think the whole process will go on. What you may have to do is negotiate for quite a while. The United States and North Korea have established a pattern that helps the outlook long term.

What about the light-water reactors? These were once promised by the United States to the North Koreans as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework that fell apart. The North Koreans seem to have raised [the issue] again in these just-concluded talks. Any chance the United States might renew that offer?

This creates a practical problem for the [Bush] administration. I don’t think such a deal is doable. It would be based on U.S. technology and would require the approval of Congress. Very shortly, the president will be a lame duck, and his ability to convince the Republicans in Congress to allow the transfer of technology to North Korea is very slim.