The Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere by Robert David Copithorne

Road to Nowhere by Robert David Copithorne

US-North Korea talks last week were called “constructive” by both sides. What these “constructive” talks are building, however, is not yet clear.

North Korea was very positive about the meeting. Kim Gae Gwan told reporters the talks were “constructive and businesslike”. KCNA reported:

The DPRK remains unchanged in its stand to resume the six-party talks without preconditions at an early date and comprehensively implement the September 19 joint statement on the principle of simultaneous action.

The language KCNA used to characterize the meeting with Ambassador Bosworth was much more positive than that used after the December of 2009 meeting. The “sincere and constructive” conversation in New York last week was much better than the “exhaustive and candid” discussion in 2009. Whereas the US and North Korea “deepened the mutual understanding [and] narrowed their differences”  in 2009, in this meeting both countries “recognized… [common] interests… and agreed to further dialogue.” KCNA is going out of its way to show that this was a successful meeting that should lead to further discussions, both bilateral with the US and multilateral in the six party talks.

Ambassador Bosworth was less committal on the success or failure of the talks. He also called the talks “constructive”, but only as they created an opportunity “to explore the willingness of North Korea to take concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization.”  In short, Bosworth is looking for denuclearization, not conversation. The US will now travel to the region and consult with allies before it commits to any next steps.

The ROK called for “concrete action” before talks could resume. Wi Sung-lac, the ROK’s lead negotiator on this issue, called an early Fall resumption of the six party talks “too aggressive, too ambitious.”

North Korea is looking for talks that lead to progress on the nuclear issue. The US and ROK position that is some progress on the nuclear issue must be made to prove that negotiations are warranted. There is an end-sum gain problem here. Talks without pre-conditions mean that the US must give up its demand that the North demonstrate a commitment to denuclearization before negotiations can resume. It would also require the ROK to abandon its position that the North must be held accountable for the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyong Island shelling. In short, by going into talks with no preconditions, North Korea forces the US and ROK to take a step back from their established negotiating positions if they want to reach a deal on the North Korean nuclear program.

The KCNA statement sets up the US to be the spoiler in the talks. North Korea is portraying itself as ready to move forward with negotiations. Meanwhile the US, taking direction from the Blue House, is likely to pan the opportunity for further talks pending some “concrete action.” The onus will be on the US to negotiate, not on the North Koreans to meet their obligations to the international community. North Korea can argue to the Chinese that the US is the inflexible party and expect reduced pressure from Beijing.

Post Script One: In an attempt to get the Chosun Simbo take on the talks I got one of the best mistranslations ever:
Making sweet, diplomatic love to the imperialists
This conversation on the denuclearization of North Korea for pre-action position to explore what was really having sex

The overall tone of the article, like the KCNA reports above, is positive so I assume that the Chosun Simbo is suggesting that the talks went so well that it was like the negotiators were making sweet, diplomatic love.

The alternative is that they are suggesting that someone got f***ed.

About Scott Thomas Bruce

I am the Director of the US office of the Nautilus Institute. I've been working on North Korea related issues for almost a decade. This is a side project. The views expressed in this blog in no way reflect the views of my employer.
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