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North Korea’s “Never-Never” Land: Prospects for Getting Diplomacy Back on Track

May 13, 2009

By Scott Snyder

Within hours following an April 14, 2009, United Nations Security Council presidential statement condemning North Korea’s missile launch, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) foreign ministry responded by stating that “six-party talks have lost the meaning of their existence, never to recover,” and that the “DPRK will never participate in such six-party talks, nor will it be bound any longer to any agreement of the talks.”

But in a four-part series published on April 20-25 in Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korean publication often used by the North Koreans to explain their official positions, the North Korean author reveals a clear willingness to return to negotiations with the United States. The first article ties the launch of the Kwangmyongsong-2 rocket to North Korea’s own objective of achieving a “powerful state” by 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. The article characterizes the UNSC statement as an act that opposes North Korea’s efforts to reach its domestic goal.

The second article reviews recent events in the six party talks, casting Japan as a “spoiler of the talks” by “holding actions back.” Although the author says it’s impossible for six party talks to resume, “bilateral talks and multilateral negotiations with the DPRK may be held in the future. … Under the situation where there is no resumption of the six-party talks, it is unavoidable to start a new diplomatic approach to have common goals confirmed with the DPRK to restore the process of denuclearization through the revival of the “19 September [Joint Statement] spirit.”

The third piece asserts that the six party format did not contribute to the “relaxation of military tension on the Korean peninsula.” It notes that the U.S. did not respond to a North Korean proposal last year to hold “DPRK-U.S. military talks with the attendance of UN representatives,” and it references a January DPRK Foreign Ministry statement that “our nuclear-possession status will not change one bit as long as the United States’ nuclear threat remains.” The article stressed that the DPRK’s foreign policy objective was to “realize denuclearization and defend peace and security in Northeast Asia and the world at large. … Were the Obama regime to avoid making the same mistakes of its predecessor regime that pushed the DPRK toward a nuclear test, it should make diplomatic efforts to help the DPRK’s army ease its vigilance and cast distrust away before anything.”

The fourth article states that “the ‘presidential statement’ adopted by the UN Security Council, which wrecked the six-party talks, can serve as a starting point of new diplomacy.” The author argues that a “standoff situation has emerged, making it necessary to agree on agenda items to discuss in new diplomatic negotiations. Basic issues can be discussed among the relevant countries,” and further suggests that peace on the Korean peninsula should be the main focus, concluding with an appeal to concerned parties to return to the negotiating table: “Presuming major powers will try to guarantee their own national interests to the maximum in the discussion of the security [issue] of the Korean peninsula, they should set forth negotiations with the DPRK as a premise to fulfill whatever goals they have in mind.”

Having tipped over the card table in a six-party game where they perceived the deck was stacked against them, the Chosun Sinbo articles suggest that the North Koreans are eager to get back to the game – as long as it is structured in such a way that they can continue to win. The North Koreans apparently deem a bilateral game with the United States or even a four-party game initially focused on peace negotiations as providing better early returns than a continuation of the denuclearization-focused six party talks, in which the North Koreans were sure to pocket their winnings (removal from the terrorism list and Trading With the Enemy Act) before leaving the table. Notably, the North Koreans have not lost their appetite to continue playing this game.

While in Beijing last week, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth said “the United States reiterates its desire to engage both multilaterally and bilaterally with North Korea,” a formulation that appears to echo Chosun Sinbo’s call for renewed negotiations. Although there may be a need to consider other forms of dialogue in the near-term as a vehicle for jump-starting the diplomatic process, it would be a mistake for the other parties to allow North Korea to stay in “never-never land” and walk away completely from the six party talks, the only venue where North Korea is publicly committed to the principle of denuclearization.

Scott Snyder directs The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, “China’s Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security,” was published by Lynne Rienner earlier this year. He can be reached at [email protected]. Scott Snyder will discuss his book at a Pacific Council on International Policy program May 15 in San Francisco. To attend this event, contact Heather MacClelland.

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, North Korea

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