North Korea, U.S. Seen Preparing for Talks

Article excerpt

The United States is ready to hold direct talks with North Korea on denuclearization, potentially paving the way for the Obama administration's first formal discussions with Pyongyang, U.S. officials said in September.

Department of State spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Sept. 11 that the United States is "prepared to enter into a bilateral discussion with North Korea." He added that such talks would be "designed to convince North Korea to come back to the six-party process and to take affirmative steps towards denuclearization."

In April, Pyongyang declared that it would "never participate" in the six-way talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, following the UN Security Council's condemnation of a North Korean rocket launch earlier that month. (See ACT, May 2009.) The other five participants maintain that North Korea must return to the talks, which have been held intermittently since 2003 to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Crowley said that Washington has not made any decisions on when or where such a meeting would occur but that "some decisions" would be made "in the next couple of weeks."

U.S. allies in the region indicated that they approved of U.S.North Korean talks on the condition that they were aimed at restarting the six-party process.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young told reporters Sept. 14, "The government is not against a U.S.North Korean bilateral meeting if it does not replace six-party talks and expedites the six-party process aimed at denuclearizing North Korea."

Similarly, the newly appointed Japanese foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, said during a Sept. 18 press conference, "The bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea can be somewhat fruitful only for the purpose of pushing forward the six-party talks."

Japan and South Korea have been wary of U.S. bilateral initiatives with North Korea in recent years. Tokyo and Seoul expressed particular dismay last year when the United States concluded bilateral understandings with North Korea without carrying out what they felt was an appropriate level of consultation. (See ACT, November 2008.)

Japanese and South Korean diplomats said in September that the United States should consult fully with Tokyo and Seoul before any bilateral discussions in order to coordinate their approach.

Washington appears to have taken steps in that direction. Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, visited the region in early September, and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg made a similar trip to the region a few weeks later.

Evans Revere, former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, now president of the Korea Society, said Sept. 10 that the U.S. visits demonstrate that "coordination is central to the new U.S. approach" to North Korea. Noting that it would not be possible to address fundamental issues, such as a formal peace agreement with North Korea, without the multilateral process, he said, "Washington appears to be sticking to its guns on the six-party talks."

According to former National Security Council Director for Asian Affairs Victor Cha, now Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser and Korea Chair, the distinction between bilateral and six-party talks is "somewhat of a false choice." Noting that bilateral and multilateral talks were held under the Bush administration, Cha said in a Sept. 16 e-mail that "substantive negotiations, if ever restarted, will take place in both venues." He added, however, that the six-party talks will remain in some form "as the only multilateral security architecture ever created in postwar East Asian history."

Although current and former officials have stressed the relevance of the six-party talks for the regional security architecture, one former official suggested that the process may also carry benefits for influencing North Korea's internal dynamics. …