Bosworth in Korea

  • photo courtesy of US Mission Geneva www.flickr.com/photos/41916075@N06/6279815313
    Dec 7, 2009

    Yesterday, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth landed in Seoul, South Korea, prior to going to North Korea on December 8. For three days of his stay in North Korea, he will engage in direct talks with North Korean officials. From North Korea, he will travel back to Seoul on the 10th, Beijing on the 11th, Tokyo on the 12th, and Moscow on the 13th and then return to Washington on the 15th.

    Q1: What is the context of this trip?

    A1: This will be the first official meeting between the United States and North Korea since the end of the Bush administration when the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in the context of the Six-Party Talks, were unable to reach agreement on a nuclear declaration and verification protocol to advance the second stage—or disablement phase—of the 2005 Joint Statement. The Obama administration took office expressing a desire to move forward with the implementation of this agreement. The DPRK undertook a ballistic missile test/satellite launch on April 5, 2009, and followed this with a nuclear test on May 25, 2009. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea subsequently (UNSCR 1874). While there have been unofficial contacts between the United States and DPRK through academic meetings held in San Diego and New York this year between October 26 and 30, this is the first official meeting.

    Q2: What are the U.S. and DPRK agendas?

    A2: The U.S. agenda will most likely be to restate clearly the Obama administration’s desire to return to the Six-Party Talks and implementation of the 2005 denuclearization joint statement. The United States is unlikely to offer any new carrots or incentives to the DPRK to encourage a return to the agreement. There is very little appetite for that in Washington, especially after the May 2009 nuclear test. The objective remains to disable and destroy as much of the North’s nuclear program as quickly as possible. The DPRK will probably seek to justify their missile test in April 2009 as a legitimate satellite launch and will more broadly seek to engage the United States in bilateral negotiations at the exclusion of Six-Party Talks.

    Q3: What is the best possible outcome of this meeting? The worst?

    A3: The best outcome would be an announcement that the DPRK is ready to return to the Six-Party Talks in Beijing and to implement the 2005 Joint Statement. The worst outcome is North Korea’s continued intransigence and a demand for U.S. apologies and removal of UNSCR 1874 sanctions.

    Q4: Why have this meeting? What is the tactical advantage to it if the North refuses Six-Party Talks?

    A4: The argument for these meeting is three-fold: (1) to offer a clear statement of U.S. policy directly to the North Koreans and coordinate with the other members of the Six-Party Talks; (2) to try to reach higher into the DPRK decisionmaking structure in order to facilitate strategic decisions (i.e., a meeting with Vice Minister Kang Sokju rather than Six-Party negotiator Kim Kye-gwan); and (3) should the meeting fail to bring the North back to the talks, to provide a pretext for pressing China to use more of its material leverage on the North to seek a return to those talks.

    Q5: Will there be additional meetings?

    A5: It appears the Obama administration has authorized only one meeting. Naturally, it will make a determination after this meeting whether others are necessary. The administration has noted that it will not allow these contacts to turn into a bilateral negotiation that excludes other members of the Six-Party process. For additional analysis, see Victor Cha, “What Do They Really Want? Obama’s North Korea Conundrum, Washington Quarterly (October 2009), http://www.twq.com/09october/index.cfm?id=365.

    Victor D. Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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