October 28, 2011

October 28, 2011 | Commentary on North Korea

Geneva Talks No Breakthrough

Ambassador Stephen Bosworth was typically cryptic in his remarks after concluding two days of meetings with North Korean counterparts. Bosworth stated that the bilateral talks were “moving in the right direction [since] we have made some progress.” He added that the tone of the meetings was “positive and generally constructive” enabling differences between the two countries to be narrowed further. Although issues needed to be resolved, both sides would work hard to do so.

Some journalists sought to seize on the seemingly positive description as a sign of the impending resumption of Six-Party Talks. Yet, that perception was dashed by a State Department spokesperson who commented that there were no breakthroughs and that “there is quite a bit of work still to do.” Moreover, it would likely be weeks if not months before Washington could know if there would be additional meetings. The Obama administration emphasized after the meeting that there must be “real concrete steps and commitments by the North Koreans on their nuclear obligations.”

The United States had hoped that the Geneva meeting would be focused on North Korea’s response to U.S. proposals made during the July 2011 bilateral meetings in New York. North Korean diplomats operate under very restrictive instructions from Pyongyang which prevent their responding to U.S. initiatives during meetings. Instead, the diplomats must return to North Korea to formulate a response to be presented during a subsequent meeting.

However, U.S. government sources indicate that the North Korean delegation arrived in Geneva without any guidance on responding to U.S. conditions on Pyongyang’s uranium-based weapons program, centrifuges, or other concrete steps forward. If true, Pyongyang’s actions reflect a lack of intent to move toward resuming the Six-Party Talks or a calculation that the Obama administration will eventually abandon its requirement for preconditions.

Washington and Seoul continue to insist that the resumption of multilateral nuclear negotiations must be preceded by tangible improvements to inter-Korean relations, a resumption of North Korea’s denuclearization commitments – most notably a return of IAEA inspectors to Yongbyon and freeze on uranium processing – and a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.

However, the Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea also seems driven in part by returning to bilateral talks as a way to prevent or postpone Pyongyang’s next provocation. But if Pyongyang doesn’t attain its objectives during meetings with U.S. or South Korean diplomats, it will return to its standard tactic of ratcheting up tensions to gain negotiating leverage.

▲ Obama Administration Policy Disconnect?

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned during his trip to Asia that North Korea remained a “serious threat,” accusing it of “reckless and provocative” acts. He vowed that the United States would maintain or even increase its military forces in Asia in order to defeat North Korea if it were to attack.

Panetta’s comments were directed less at Pyongyang than at reassuring nervous U.S. allies that potential draconian cuts to the defense budget would not lead to U.S. force reductions in Asia. If a Congressional “super-committee” fails to agree a $1.2 trillion reduction in the federal deficit over 10 years by November 23rd, there will be an automatic $500 billion cuts in defense spending on top of previous $400 billion in defense cuts.

His vow that there would be no degradation of the U.S. commitment may be reassuring, but it is questionable whether it is practical. U.S. defense officials privately comment that under such a doomsday scenario one wonders how additional defense spending cuts wouldn’t lead to a reduction or hollowing out of U.S. forces worldwide.

Panetta’s harsh comments on North Korea, along with expressions of “skepticism” over dialogue with Pyongyang, took place concurrently with Bosworth’s diplomatic mission with his North Korean counterparts. Had this juxtaposition taken place during the Bush administration, pundits would have depicted it as clear indicator of a dysfunctional foreign policy undermined by warring factions. Panetta would have been criticized as a neoconservative sabotaging delicate diplomatic engagement.

Similarly, anonymous senior U.S. military officials who were quoted as saying that the United States wasn’t “rushing back to the table when the North Koreans dangle some minor, reversible concession,” would have been described by the media as overstepping the boundaries of civilian rule of the military.

▲ Seoul Changes Tactics on North Korean Policy

There has been much speculation that South Korea’s policy toward Pyongyang has changed, perhaps dramatically. This is driven by the change in Minister of Unification from the “hardline” Hyun In Taek to the “flexible” Yu Woo Ik, as well as Seoul’s de-linking of the need for a formal apology for last year’s attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island prior to inter-Korean meetings.

The changes are more cosmetic and tactical than reflecting any major change in Lee Myung Bak’s strategy or policy. Even before the loss in the Seoul mayoral election, the GNP was running scared over a potentially large loss in next April’s legislative elections. Therefore, they pressed President Lee to dump Hyun due to fear that the party could be depicted as unnecessarily hardline toward Pyongyang. GNP Chairman Hong Joon Pyo even traveled to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where he advocated greater policy flexibility.

During my meetings with senior officials in Seoul in September, they counseled that Lee Myung Bak saw no need to alter his approach toward North Korea. In Washington Post and Yonhap interviews on the eve of his trip to the United States, Lee affirmed no change to his overall principled approach requiring North Korea denuclearization prior to significant South Korean benefits.

Despite the change in unification ministers, President Lee will continue to be the dominant voice. The policy was described as being overseen by Hyun In Taek (in his new role as special advisor to the president); Minister of Unification Yu Woo Ik; Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Sung Hwan; National Intelligence Service head Won Sei Hoon; and the Blue House Chief of Staff.

Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: North Korea

First appeared in The Daily NK