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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
U.S. Seeking Unity for N. Korea Talks
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Kelsey Davenport

The U.S. special representative for North Korea policy outlined Washington’s current strategy for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program, saying last month that the United States will place a high priority on efforts to coordinate with partner countries in the region so they speak with “one voice” before negotiating with Pyongyang on denuclearization.

Glyn Davies, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on June 14, said Washington has not tried a “concerted multilateral effort” that will send “common signals” to Pyongyang from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, the countries that had negotiated with North Korea in the so-called six-party talks. Those talks began in 2003 and continued intermittently until April 2009 when Pyongyang withdrew without having completed the dismantlement of its nuclear program. North Korea had committed to the dismantlement in 2005 in return for steps including economic cooperation, a U.S. guarantee not to invade or attack North Korea, energy assistance, and possible future assistance on a peaceful nuclear energy program.

Davies said the current U.S. approach for multilateral talks differs from the six-party process, which he described as a looser “umbrella” for negotiations with less coordination among the countries negotiating with Pyongyang.

Under the new approach, when multilateral negotiations with North Korea begin, Pyongyang will not be able to “exploit” any differences of opinion between the countries involved, Davies said.

Davies met with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Washington June 18-19. During a June 19 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the parties had agreed to continue “very close coordination on North Korea” and that U.S. consultations with China and Russia would “deepen.”

In a June 21 interview, Joel Wit, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, said that the United States is pursuing this strategy because Washington thinks it has China “in its corner.”

Wit cautioned against this assumption, saying that although there have been changes in China’s policy toward North Korea, it is “too early to judge the significance” of these changes.

Generally, Beijing is seen as more supportive of North Korea than other countries in the region are, providing much-needed economic assistance, despite Pyongyang’s failure to comply with UN sanctions calling for it to dismantle its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. At their June 7 meeting in California, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to “deepen” their countries’ cooperation on North Korea and continue to apply pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize, U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon said in a June 8 press briefing.

Wit described the current situation as a “struggle for China’s heart and mind.” The United States is trying to encourage China to increase pressure on North Korea, he said, while Pyongyang is attempting to maintain Chinese support, as evidenced by the May 22 visit of a high-level North Korean official to Beijing and a June 16 North Korean request for talks with the United States.

Pyongyang’s Proposal

In a June 15 statement from the National Defense Commission, which controls the armed forces, a North Korean official said that bilateral talks with the United States would “ease tensions” on the Korean peninsula and “establish regional peace and security.” The statement reaffirmed that Pyongyang is committed to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula but warned that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons until “the nuclear threat from the outside is completely terminated.”

Davies said that although there are no plans “at the moment” for the United States to talk with North Korea bilaterally or multilaterally, Washington is not opposed to future diplomatic engagement. But there must be a “sufficient basis to make progress,” Davies said.

Referring to North Korea’s June 15 offer of talks, Psaki said in a June 17 press briefing that the United States has seen “no evidence” that North Korea will participate in negotiations that “produce credible denuclearization actions.” The United States will meet with North Korea as part of the six-party process only when Pyongyang takes “credible steps” toward denuclearization, she said.

Wit said if the United States sets preconditions for talks, North Korea will respond with its own preconditions, “and that is going to lead nowhere.”

In 2012 the United States did attempt to make a deal directly with North Korea that was not based on denuclearization. Known as the Leap Day agreement because it was concluded on Feb. 29, North Korea agreed to refrain from nuclear and missile testing in exchange for aid from the United States. (See ACT, April 2012.) The deal broke down in April 2012 after Pyongyang attempted to launch a satellite. The failure of the agreement led the United States to set tougher conditions for negotiations to begin, Davies said.

Since the Leap Day agreement fell through, Pyongyang successfully launched a satellite into orbit last December and tested a nuclear device Feb. 13.

Bilateral Talks

Davies said that the United States will not get to a “better place” with North Korea until the relationship between that country and South Korea improves.

North and South Korea were set to hold their first high-level talks in six years in Seoul, but Pyongyang pulled out of the June 12 talks at the last minute.

According to a statement run by the official North Korean news agency June 13, Pyongyang was insulted that Seoul chose its vice unification minister, Kim Nam-sik, rather than Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae to lead the South Korean delegation. Pyongyang’s delegation was to be led by Kang Ji Yong, director for the secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.

In a June 13 press release, a spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Unification said that the cancellation was “regrettable.” Seoul chose the vice minister to “reach parity” between the chief delegates from the two sides after North Korea said it would not send a ministerial-level official and chose Kang, the spokesman said, declaring that the “attitude of the North” derailed the talks.

In the June 13 statement, North Korea said Seoul’s impolite and “provocative behavior” would prevent dialogue in the near future.