A senior U.S. diplomat on Wednesday applauded North Korea's decision to re-engage in bilateral talks on its nuclear weapons program several months after the isolated state went through a rare transfer of power, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, Feb. 21).
"I find it a positive sign that relatively soon after the beginning of the transition in North Korea, the D.P.R.K. has chosen to get back to the table with us," Obama administration special envoy on North Korea Glyn Davies said in Beijing, where he is preparing for a Thursday meeting with North Korean diplomats.
The two-way talks would be the first since Kim Jong Un took power in the North; they also mark the third time in less than a year that Washington and Pyongyang have discussed conditions for reinvigorating a frozen multinational process aimed at permanently ending North Korea's nuclear weapon ambitions. The six-party talks involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States were last held in December 2008.
A primary obstacle to renewing the multilateral negotiations is North Korea's refusal to first halt its enrichment of uranium -- a process that can produce weapon-usable material. There were hints in December that a deal was in the works that would provide the North with food assistance from the United States if it would halt its uranium work.
Following the unexpected December death of longtime North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Washington had held off on seeking new bilateral talks with Pyongyang until it received the appropriate signals from the successor regime led by his youngest son.
"What precisely [Kim Jong Un's] policies are, in what direction he wants to take his country -- all of these are unknowns at this stage," Davies said to journalists (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Feb. 22).
The former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said in addition to the North's nuclear weapons work, he would discuss concerns about proliferation, human rights abuses and other issues, Kyodo News reported.
"We would be interested to see whether they are interested in moving forward with us, and then eventually, the much more important phase of this ... moving forward with other members of the six-party talks," Davies said.
The U.S. representative to the six-nation talks, Clifford Hart, is also to take part in the Beijing talks, as will his North Korean opposite in the aid-for-denuclearization negotiations, Kim Kye Gwan.
"I hope that [the North Koreans] are coming in a cooperative spirit, ready to discuss all of the issues that are of concern to us and that we will spend more time and our talks tomorrow discussing the future rather than dwelling on the past," Davies said (Kyodo News, Feb. 22).
Former Bush administration North Korea expert Victor Cha told the Associated Press he worried Washington was setting itself up for failure by signaling it was more interested in striking an accord than North Korea.
"The last thing you want is a deal more than the North Koreans do," Cha said.
Should North Korea agree to cease uranium enrichment, it would be critical that an agreement be in place to bring IAEA inspectors back to the Stalinist state to verify the shutdown had taken place, Cha said. The absence of a verification mechanism would be the same as "selling the same horse" time and time again, he added.
The North has a track record of taking some limited denuclearization steps in exchange for international concessions only to reverse course later on the nuclear disarmament front. This tactic was central to the Kim Jong Il regime's overall bargaining calculus.
"The new regime claims that they will stick unyieldingly with Kim Jong Il's old policies," Fudan University Center for Korean Studies Director Shi Yuanhua said. "If the North Korean public feels that concessions have been made when the body of Kim Jong Il has not turned cold yet, there will be internal chaos" (Alexa Olesen, Associated Press/Newsday, Feb. 22).
Meanwhile, North Korean state-controlled media on Wednesday mocked the upcoming high-profile Global Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul as a "childish farce," Reuters reported (see GSN, Feb. 16).
"It is astonishing that a meeting dealing with the issue of nuclear security is to be convened in South Korea, a nuclear advance base for the U.S. and the world's largest nuclear power magazine," the Korean Central News Agency said.
Though short-range U.S. nuclear weapons were at one point fielded in South Korea, they have long since been withdrawn. South Korea is now covered by U.S. extended nuclear deterrence.
Heads of states and top officials from 50 nations will convene next month in Seoul with the goal of advancing international efforts to secure vulnerable stocks of nuclear material. Pyongyang received an invitation based on its willingness to publicly accept denuclearization, but is unlikely to attend. While the North nuclear activities are not expected to be on the formal agenda, the South Korean government has said it expects the event will send a strong antiproliferation signal to Pyongyang (Jeremy Laurence, Reuters, Feb. 22).
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday told journalists, "the Seoul nuclear security summit will do a great deal of good in terms of security not only in South Korea but also in Northeast Asia," the Xinhua News Agency reported.
The summit is set to take place from March 26-27 (Xinhua News Agency/People's Daily Online, Feb. 22).