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In Bid to Restart Talks, N. Korea Offers to Halt Nuke Tests, but Not Rocket Launches

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

A South Korean activist holds a banner showing a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a park near the inter-Korean border in February. North Korean officials have offered in semi-formal talks with U.S. officials to abstain from new nuclear and missile tests if aid-for-denuclearization negotiations are resumed (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images). A South Korean activist holds a banner showing a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a park near the inter-Korean border in February. North Korean officials have offered in semi-formal talks with U.S. officials to abstain from new nuclear and missile tests if aid-for-denuclearization negotiations are resumed (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- North Korean officials recently told a U.S. delegation they would cease nuclear and missile tests if the United States returns to negotiations, though they would not rule out firing more long-range rockets, a former State Department official told Global Security Newswire.

Joel Wit and other former U.S. administration officials met in late September with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho for so-called Track 1.5 talks. At the informal Berlin meeting -- one of several Ri has had in recent weeks with onetime U.S. officials in Beijing, Berlin and London -- they heard Pyongyang’s proposal for reinvigorating aid-for-denuclearization negotiations with the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

"What they’ve been doing in these meetings is putting some more meat on the bones on what their position is in terms of restarting dialogue," said Wit, who in the 1990s led the State Department’s efforts to implement the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. "They’ve laid it out in a fairly detailed way and they’ve also laid out what their position would be in a dialogue."

Pyongyang has publicly stated it will not accept any preconditions to returning to the six-nation nuclear talks. But statements made by its representatives in the Track 1.5 talks suggest that after any formal negotiations actually start "they’d be willing to take confidence-building measures" such as implementing a moratorium on underground nuclear testing and test-launching strategic ballistic missiles, Wit said in an interview. Critically, though, the North has not offered to abstain from further long-range rocket launches.

Wit, a U.S.-Korea Institute visiting scholar who edits the expert website 38 North, said the North Koreans know the United States wants any moratorium to include rocket launches. "They understand that’s a problem from our perspective," he said.

A February 2012 moratorium deal between Pyongyang and Washington collapsed before it could be implemented when North Korea, ignoring U.S. demands, launched a long-range rocket it claimed was for peaceful space research. The Obama administration and many other governments condemned the launch as a cover for a long-range ballistic missile test.

The experience made Washington even more leery than it was before of sitting down to talks with North Korea absent prior demonstrations of a commitment to irreversible denuclearization.

Asked to respond to Pyongyang’s latest moratorium proposal, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said: "The onus is, of course, on North Korea to take meaningful steps towards living up to" its previously agreed-to denuclearization promises.

"I’m not going to outline specifically what that might look like, but they committed to abandoning their entire program and we hope that there would be some movement in that direction," she said at an Oct. 10 press briefing.

Wit said Obama officials "listened politely, which isn’t always the case," when they were briefed about the recent Track 1.5 talks with the North.

This past summer, Wit told a Washington audience if the Obama administration does not negotiate with North Korea now, it essentially is tacitly acquiescing to a future where the country has a credible nuclear weapon.

"What we should be doing is to be seeking to resume talks and then [the North Koreans] should of course take confidence-building measures earlier on," Wit told GSN on Oct. 10.

Evans Revere, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said he perceives a "willingness" by the Obama administration to reengage with North Korea, provided it essentially recommits itself to denuclearization promises made in the six-nation framework in September 2005.

"There is no antipathy toward engaging and discussing with North Korea but the conversation needs to center around North Korea’s fulfillment of the obligations that it has already undertaken," Revere told GSN in a September interview after he returned from Track 1.5 talks hosted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing.

Joseph DeTrani, a North Korea expert who previously headed the National Counter Proliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, believes the United States "should be realistic" and recognize it needs either to negotiate with Kim Jong Un's regime or watch its nuclear weapons work continue to advance.

DeTrani reportedly engaged in informal talks in early October with North Korea’s Ri in London. At an Oct. 11 conference in Washington, he said the United States and others must stop believing it is only a matter of time before the Kim dynasty implodes, leaving its nuclear weapons program to quickly be dismantled.

"We’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid for 20 years," DeTrani said. "We need engagement" with the North Korean regime.

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