US Talks With North Korea: Baby Steps, Not Breakthroughs
US and North Korean officials completed negotiations in Beijing on Friday, ending their third meeting in the last eight months and the first since the death last December of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Un.
Any progress? Here’s Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea policy:
I think the word ‘breakthrough’ goes too far, folks. I wouldn’t want anybody using the word ‘breakthrough’…The talks were serious and substantive…I think we made a little bit of progress…We have been able to illuminate the issues a little bit better, gain a better understanding of their point of view, their rationale and their position.
So, incremental progress in terms of sitting down and talking about key issues, but no real breakthroughs. There were reportedly some discussions on resuming food aid to Pyongyang, which was something that was discussed as part of a deal closed to being forged between the two sides before elder Kim’s death. Apparently the sticking points are still largely what they were before: monitoring of food-aid distribution and the type of aid provided. For instance, the US has placed a greater focus on providing vitamin supplements and high-protein biscuits for malnourished people, but Pyongyang wants food aid to contain more rice and other grains, which Washington is more reluctant to do since it is routinely siphoned off to the regime’s loyal backers in the cities. The New York Times also notes that “both sides had almost reached the goal of suspension of activities at the uranium enrichment plant but narrowly failed to bridge differences”.
Movement on the food aid question could be a critical first step in tackling the relationship’s tougher issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program. The idea would be to get some progress on the disarmament question from Pyongyang to then restart the six-party talks guided by an aid-for-denuclearization agreement reached in September 2005.
What about the near future? North Korea will have to show concrete steps toward suspending its nuclear program before six-party talks can resume. Former special representative to North Korea and my dean Stephen Bosworth thinks that while there is a possibility of talks resuming sometime this year, the fact that we are (believe it or not) seeing either elections or transitions in all members of the six party talks in 2012 – the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea – means that various parties may not take the necessary strategic risk necessary to make talks productive. Here’s Bosworth:
I think that there is a good possibility that we may see a resumption of talks sometime in 2012. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on it….I think it’s unlikely – but not impossible – that the North Koreans are going to be prepared to take the sort of strategic risk that they would have to take in order to make talks with us productive. Neither do I think that it’s likely in an election year that we’re going to take the sort of public relations and strategic risk that would be required if we are going to make the talks productive. So I hope that we can do more than just manage to maintain stability over the current year, but I’m not all that optimistic.
But as with anything related to North Korea (and I’m sure Dean Bosworth would agree) the future is anyone’s guess.