After the abrupt cancellation of planned talks between North and South Korea on 12 June over the issue of protocol, in a surprise move the North offered on 16 June to hold high-level talks with the US, saying it was ready to discuss easing tensions and eventually denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
What does North Korea intend to achieve? First, it offered the South to hold working-level dialogue, which they had on 6 June at Panmunjom, and was to prepare the first ministerial meeting between the two in Seoul on 12 June. The meeting collapsed over the issue of protocol. The North felt insulted by the South’s nomination of a vice minister as its chief delegate. It looked vulnerable right from the outset as it was dogged by disagreement over the agenda. Though little was expected from the talks, it was nevertheless a positive step forward given the blistering rhetoric and war cry that characterized much of March and April with threats of nuclear strikes and counterstrikes.
Having failed to reach out to Seoul, Pyongyang’s National Defense Commission proposed “high-level talks between the North Korean and U.S. governments to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and establish regional peace and security”. It said both the countries could meet “any time and at any place the United States wants”. A spokesman of the NDC said “if the US is truly interested in securing regional peace and safety and easing tensions, it should not mention preconditions for the talks”.
How does one expect the US to respond to this dialogue offer? Pyongyang feels cornered as its principal ally and benefactor, China, is frustrated with its ‘little brother’ not behaving reasonably. During the two-day informal meeting in California on 7-8 June, Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama had a healthy discussion about North Korea and “agreed that North Korea has to denuclearize; that neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state; and that we would work together to deepen US-China cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization”. Further, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon underlined that recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapon state would have profound implications to Northeast Asia and the surrounding region and also would put China’s interests as risk too. Obama made it clear to Jinping that the US would take any steps to defend itself and its allies from the threats that North Korea presents. What thus transpired is that both Obama and Jinping were on the same page and the denuclearization 0f the Korean peninsula is their common goal.
Notwithstanding Pyongyang’s dialogue offer, it is unlikely to yield any fruitful results. Pyongyang has made it clear that its nuclear weapons are not for negotiation. The NDC spokesman reaffirmed that “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was an unchanged will and resolution of our military and the people.” To stress the credibility of that statement, the spokesman attributed it to the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, and his son Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un. North Korea has issued similar statements in the past and has only hardened its position, saying that it would never join any talks designed to end its nuclear weapons programs.
While offering for dialogue with the US, Pyongyang also made it clear that denuclearization of the peninsula must include the removal of all American nuclear threats in the region, thereby reiterating its longstanding position that it would discuss dismantling its nuclear weapons programs with the US, but only as part of broader nuclear arms reduction talks in the region.
The US position is that Pyongyang must first take concrete steps to show its sincerity in giving up its nuclear weapons before any direct talks are agreed. The US is unlikely to drop Pyongyang’s demand that it should stop raising “preconditions” for dialogue. The North has also reiterated that it wants to negotiate a treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War armistice and formally end the war. With both sides sticking to their positions, no progress can be expected.
In their last senior-level talks, the US and North Korea had reached the so-called “leap day” agreement on 29 February 2012, in which Washington promised 240,000 tons of food aid and North Korea agreed to place a moratorium on uranium enrichment and nuclear and missile tests. But the agreement quickly collapsed when North Korea launched a long-range rocket in April 2012 and the US, seeing the launching as a provocative test of missile technology, scrapped the food aid and led efforts to tighten sanctions.
With such experience, the US is unlikely to trust Pyongyang’s sincerity. Having its ploy to hold dialogue with the South to get the commercial projects restarted failed, thereby losing precious hard currency, Pyongyang is trying the same trick with the US. But without consulting with its allies Japan and South Korea, the US is not expected to take any unilateral decision to enter into dialogue with the North. The foreign ministers of the three countries have lined up a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei on 2 July to confirm their united stand on North Korea.
This article appeared at IPCS and is reprinted with permission.