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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Talks Redux?

by | August 23rd, 2011 | 07:50 am
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We have stayed relatively quiet about the prospects for talks since a brief assessment following the apparent breakthrough at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July. The New York talks between Kim Kye Gwan and Stephen Bosworth have now come and gone. Though labeled “constructive and businesslike” by both sides, the US was very tight-lipped. Bosworth’s comments following the talks added little to the official press release, which held to the line that the talks were exploratory and that the North Koreans had to show something.

Thanks to our friend Chung-in Moon, we have at least a little more information on what might have transpired during the New York meeting. Yonhap alerted us to a post by Moon at the Changbi Weekly (in Korean) based on a “credible source” on the US side; Moon also has close ties to the North Koreans, having participated in both the 2000 and 2007 summits.  Caveat emptor, but some highlights:

  • Kim Kye Gwan expressed a willingness to resume talks with the U.S. without preconditions, a position that has been used in the past to sidestep any discussion of the sticky Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do issues. Reading between the lines of his National Liberation day speech, it appears that Lee Myung Bak has finally consented to separate the 6PT from progress on North-South relations, but as Moon notes he is clearly not putting anything new on the table.
  • North Korea expressed a willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons. In return, the US would withdraw its “nuclear threat” to the North and normalize relations. It’s never been clear to us how the US would achieve the former, and the sequence for getting to the latter has been on ongoing stumbling block.
  • The headline from the Moon post, however, was the apparent North Korean proposal for a DPRK-U.S. summit [북미간 최고위급 당국자 회담, a meeting between the highest ranking officials] in order to generate a breakthrough. Moon seems to think that this proposal referred to a possible meeting between President Obama and Kim Jong-il, a complete non-starter. But it could have referred either to a meeting between the President and a higher-ranking DPRK envoy or perhaps constituted a not-so-subtle dig at Bosworth.
  • The real problem is how to get things moving in the short-run. Kim mentioned that North Korea could impose a moratorium on its nuclear and missile tests, but only if the U.S. relaxes sanctions and provides food aid. The US has made a gesture on the aid front: we will contribute up to $900,000 in emergency relief supplies to Kangwon and North and South Hwanghae provinces through U.S. NGOs, which follows on $600,000 contributed last fall following the flooding in September. But the larger aid effort remains in limbo and the lifting of sanctions is clearly conditional on some move from the North Koreans on the nuclear front. From the American side, the North Korean offer falls pretty squarely into the “paying for the same horse twice” category.
  • A major problem in finding the re-set button is the Sig Hecker revelation regarding the uranium enrichment program, and its sheer scale and technical sophistication; it was hard to avoid the inference that there was more capability somewhere upstream from Yongbyon. Iterating that North Korea has a right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, Kim claimed that the centrifuge program was designed only to produce low-enriched uranium to fuel the 25-30MW light-water reactor (LWR) that is currently under construction at Yongbyon. North Korea would be willing to give up the uranium program if LWRs were provided as originally promised under the Agreed Framework. Those reactors, started under KEDO aegis, are now rusting hulks; over $1 billion down the drain. I don’t suspect we are going there again soon.

In short, not much that is really new that we can see.