North Korea announces willingness to return to talks

Jul 12, 2010


by Anna Newby

The United Nations announced today that high-level military officers from North Korea and the UN Command plan to meet tomorrow in the border village of Panmunjom to discuss the controversial Cheonan sinking last March. U.S. colonels will represent the UN at the meeting, which is intended as a precursor to higher-level talks. The most recent of the “General Officer Talks” at Panmunjom – which have taken place on an occasional basis since 1998 – was in March 2009.

The plan to meet comes in the wake of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s announcement on Saturday that it is willing to return to international nuclear disarmament talks, which have been stalled since December 2008. In a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency, the ministry said that Pyongyang “will make consistent efforts for the conclusion of a peace treaty and the denuclearization through the six-party talks conducted on equal footing.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Pyongyang is expected to maintain its position that it played no role in the sinking, according to Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. However, the meeting could be an important step in achieving higher-level talks between the two sides.
Pyongyang’s willingness to return to talks has been interpreted by some as a sign that North Korean leaders are satisfied with the UN Security Council’s decision to avoid placing overt blame on North Korea for the sinking of the South Korean warship. The Security Council expressed “deep concern” about the March sinking, but stopped short of condemning North Korea out of fear that it would spark a military response.
The South Korean response to Pyongyang’s announcement has been cautious, and leaders have said that they are waiting for additional evidence that their North Korean counterparts are serious. On Sunday, a senior South Korean official said that North Korea must demonstrate sincerity in its calls to resume six-party talks by acknowledging its responsibility for the sinking, as well as show concrete willingness to abandon its nuclear program. "It looks like North Korea is looking for a way out," the official said, adding:
"Sincerity and trustworthiness are important for resuming the talks…This is a matter of willingness. If it is willing (to apologize) it can do so in whatever way."
Along with North Korea, China has also been pushing to resume the six-party talks. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Quin Gang said Friday: “We hope the involved parties continue to maintain calmness and restraint and take this opportunity to turn the page on the Cheonan incident as soon as possible” and called for talks to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
According to the Korea Times, the six-party talks are a helpful forum for advancing disarmament and nonproliferation goals:
The ongoing power transition [in North Korea] and the timetable for a nuclear state will likely make the six-party talks a useful tool in ending the nuclear program.
John W. Lewis and Robert Carlinprod of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists similarly believe that the six-party format allows the U.S. and others to “prod the North into becoming a state more fully integrated into the global community.”
In the past, a South Korean official said, there was a “deep perception gap” within the group, making it difficult for negotiators to reach consensus:
"Five nations, excepting North Korea, shared the view that denuclearization was the prime goal of the six-party talks, whereas the North regarded the talks as a tool to make the five others accept it as a nuclear state.”
Cho Myung-cheol, a former professor of Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, does not believe that substantive changes will come of resumed six-party talks:
"To get a fruitful result, all parties must be prepared to make bold concessions in return for what they wanted to achieve. But none of them appears to be ready for that.”
On July 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are scheduled to attend a joint meeting in Seoul with their South Korean counterparts. The talks are expected to focus largely on enhancing security ties during a period of increased tension on the peninsula.
In the wake of last week’s Security Council statement, it appears that the North Korean government is trying to switch tack. After rejecting a June invitation to meet with the UN Command in South Korea, North Korea’s willingness to sit down with U.S. representatives represents an about-face. Perhaps the North Korean leadership is more willing to engage after the UN declined to blame it for the Cheonan incident, or perhaps the change has to do with an expected power transition from Kim Jong-il to his son. In any case, the shift is a positive one, and shows – at least for the moment – that North Korean leaders are replacing brinksmanship and strongman tactics with steps towards diplomatic engagement.