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A New Opportunity to Engage North Korea

As the United States and North Korea prepare to re-engage one another through diplomacy, there remains skepticism in Washington about whether North Korea will ever agree to denuclearize, just as there is skepticism in Pyongyang about whether Washington will ever make peace with it. But former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang in August yielded valuable information and concrete diplomatic results to warrant reassessment of what is possible by way of bilateral talks with North Korea. Among these:

  1. Kim Jong Il’s personal reception of Clinton revealed the high degree of importance that North Korea attaches to personal involvement and contact between leaders at the highest levels.

  2. Pyongyang’s preference for Clinton, among several possibilities, as an envoy to retrieve reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling indicates that it wants to pick up where it left off in 2000 — a moment when normalized relations between the U.S. and North Korea appeared on the horizon.

  3. Clinton reported General Secretary Kim Jong Il to be fully in command, rational and broadly knowledgeable of the issues. This is consistent with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s observations following her meeting with Kim Jong Il in 2000.

  4. The government in Pyongyang is stable and not on the verge of a succession crisis.

  5. As a result of Clinton’s trip, North Korea invited U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Policy, Stephen Bosworth, and Special Envoy to the Six-Party Talks, Sung Kim, to Pyongyang to start bilateral talks.

  6. North Korea reached out to South Korea, sending a delegation to Seoul to pay respects to former President Kim Dae Jung who passed away in August, restarting North-South economic cooperation and other trust building measures. As a result inter-Korea relations are improving.

In light of these developments Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth reported in Tokyo on September 8, 2009 that the Obama administration is open to bilateral talks with North Korea, but “not as a substitute” for the six-party talks. While taking pains to discourage any perception of a significant shift in U.S. policy, State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley, in a press conference, September 11, 2009, further cautioned that such talks would be a “short term” measure to convince North Korea to return to the six-party talks. In any case the administration’s openness to bilateral talks with North Korea is hopeful and consistent with its position that it will “extend a hand” if adversaries “unclench their fist.”

Previously the administration maintained that it would only negotiate with North Korea upon its return to the six-party talks, relying upon international sanctions and China’s influence with Pyongyang to bring the talks back online. However North Korea was already heavily sanctioned before the new administration took office, and it does not regard its relationship with China as an adequate counterweight to what it perceives as hostility from the U.S. stemming from the Korean War. If the six-party talks are to be revived, it will require vastly improved relations between the U.S. and North Korea. The U.S. should use this opportunity for bilateral talks with North Korea to achieve this purpose. The administration should:

  1. Send Ambassadors Stephen Bosworth and Sung Kim to North Korea without delay. Their task should be to achieve a consensus with their counterparts in Pyongyang on the strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, of the six-party talks and past bilateral talks, upon which to base the next steps towards addressing the security concerns of North Korea, as well as the U.S. China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

  2. President Obama should send, with Bosworth and Kim, a personal greeting to General Secretary Kim Jong Il expressing his appreciation for the release of the reporters and his commitment to improving relations with North Korea and pursuing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula by means of diplomacy.

  3. The administration should support all efforts by North and South Korea to restore good relations and pursue economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, and family reunions as prescribed by the North/South Summit of 2000.

While bilateral talks may not be a substitute for the six-party talks as a forum for achieving regional security arrangements in Northeast Asia, multilateralism by itself cannot build trust between the U.S. and North Korea. Ending Cold War hostilities on the Korean peninsula will require the bilateral efforts of the U.S. and North Korea to forge a peacemaking process in which denuclearization of the Korean peninsula may proceed unhindered by legacies of the Korean War.

Paul Liem is President of the Korea Policy Institute. The brief was prepared for legislative outreach activities in Washington DC, September 16 and 17, 2009, organized by the National Campaign to End the Korean War.


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