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'Reversible Steps' Could Restart North Korea Nuclear Talks: U.S. Envoy

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Glyn Davies talks to the press in Tokyo in November. The senior diplomat in public remarks on Tuesday painted a gloomy picture of the current state of the nuclear impasse with Pyongyang. U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Glyn Davies talks to the press in Tokyo in November. The senior diplomat in public remarks on Tuesday painted a gloomy picture of the current state of the nuclear impasse with Pyongyang. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

A U.S. envoy on Tuesday suggested Washington could accept "reversible steps" from North Korea on denuclearization in order to jump-start frozen negotiations.

"What they do, quite frankly, in the initial stages would be perfectly reversible steps that they would take, declaratory steps," said Glyn Davies, the Obama administration's special envoy for North Korea policy. He emphasized, however, that Pyongyang could only return to the long-paralyzed six-party process if it accepted the "fundamental premise" that the negotiations were focused on the permanent shuttering of its nuclear weapons program.

Davies was responding to a reporter's question on whether the United States was still demanding from Pyongyang concrete proof of its commitment to irreversible denuclearization as a precondition to returning to the negotiations, which also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

"Davies' answer suggests that if the six-party talks were to begin, the first actions the U.S. and its partners would demand would be aimed at limits that curb the D.P.R.K.'s nuclear and missile potential," said Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Association executive director, in an email.

Potential reversible steps that the North could take to gain the confidence of other countries could include a pledge to suspend nuclear and missile testing. A stillborn U.S-North Korea agreement reached on Leap Day 2012 involved such a promise of a testing moratorium; Pyongyang was seen to quickly break faith with Washington when it weeks later unsuccessfully attempted to send a rocket into space.

Speaking during a Tuesday evening panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Davies rejected any chance of the Leap Day deal's precepts being revived.

"We'd like to see them take concrete actions," he said of North Korea. "The stuff they gotta do -- they know what they have to do."

The six-party talks format focuses on rewarding North Korea for its phased denuclearization with timed infusions of economic assistance and security agreements; the last round of negotiations took place in late 2008. Since that time, Pyongyang has detonated multiple atomic devices, carried out a number of apparent long-range ballistic missile tests, revealed a uranium enrichment capacity and restarted a mothballed plutonium-production reactor. Most recently, the world has been waiting to see if the North will make good on its repeated threats of conducting a fourth nuclear test.

Davies painted an overall dim picture of the current state of the nuclear impasse with the North: "The fact that they're not interested in resolving the cases of Americans who have been imprisoned in North Korea tells you something about their current interest in going back to multilateral diplomacy."

Since Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011, the North Korean regime has published a number of statements that underline how central nuclear weapons are to the regime's sense of identity.

"This new leader has done us a favor, in a back-handed fashion, of making it quite clear that he has no intention of meaningfully denuclearizing, and that presents a problem. But it also is a clarifying moment," said Davies, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Victor Cha, who served as special envoy to North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, said he did not believe there was anything left of the six-party talks to salvage.

"The last meeting was in 2008. It's been six years. If you don't do something for six years, you probably don't do it anymore," said Cha, who is a senior adviser to the CSIS think tank and participated in Tuesday's panel.

Kimball, who attended the event, warned that if Washington waits too long for the North to "recommit to the goals" of a 2005 six-party talks joint statement on denuclearization, Pyongyang's leaders could expand their fissile material stockpile and further improve their missile and nuclear capabilities.

"It is past time to make the necessary adjustments to the strategy of the United States and its partners to limit [the North's] capabilities before they become even more dangerous to the region," he said.

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