By Duyeon Kim
Washington appears to be anticipating some answers from Pyongyang in talks this week in Geneva, but it might have already gotten a response – from the Dear Leader himself.
A senior State Department official told reporters on background on October 19: “They (North Korea) needed to absorb the message (from July). They’ve had some time to think about it. I think we’ll see if they come with anything new in Geneva, and that will be a factor in whether we can move forward.”
In a rare written interview with the foreign press, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told Russia’s Itar-Tass that same day that “There is no change in our position that the Six Party Talks must resume without preconditions and that denuclearization must be realized by implementing the September 2005 Joint Statement based on the principle of action-for-action.”
So his message seems clear: 1. no change in North Korea’s position, 2. six-party talks without preconditions, 3. action-for-action. In other words, there probably won’t be “anything new.”
In a land where Kim Jong-il’s words are the law, it seems he has publically given his envoys crystal clear orders for this week’s bilateral discussion.
The interview was the first of its kind in nine years, and appears to be Kim Jong-il’s way of trying to gain the upper hand in this week’s talks. In doing so, he has essentially concluded talks before envoys boarded their flights.
Washington and Seoul’s positions are just as clear and firm – Pyongyang must take concrete steps prior to the six-party talks: Shut down its uranium enrichment program, invite IAEA inspectors back to Yongbyon, issue a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and pledge not to attack South Korea among others.
This raises the question of what can be accomplished in the near term. Simultaneous actions have been tried before, but in this case, Pyongyang has too many tasks to complete prior to the resumption of six-party talks.
The North may want to negotiate its uranium enrichment program, unveiled to an American scientist last November, during this week’s Geneva talks but Washington and Seoul have been clear on the steps Pyongyang needs to take. Meanwhile, a looming contentious issue is food aid, which may in practical terms eventually be the dealmaker.
Although it appears the North walked into the bilateral meeting with a firm position, one curious development is Ri Yong-ho who, at a closed-door Beijing seminar last month on the sixth anniversary of the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement, reportedly mentioned a “package deal” to settle all outstanding issues.
Meanwhile, the same unnamed U.S. official last Wednesday also acknowledged that “This (bilateral talks) is, at this stage, an exploratory phase, and frankly, it’s a management strategy.”
This “management strategy” comes from the apparent U.S. belief that North Korea will refrain from provocations if it is engaged in dialogue. Not so fast – this is only partially true. History has shown that Pyongyang will unleash provocations even during dialogue if talks do not go their way.
Dialogue has not ended provocations – provocations have ended dialogue. The mere resumption of talks does not guarantee complete crisis management. North Korean provocations are like a ticking time bomb contingent upon their mood. It’s a tactic the U.S. must consider in every game plan.
Still, dialogue is surely better than no dialogue, especially as we approach an election year. Frequent contacts can help relieve public anxieties while building confidence and understanding, if done skillfully, could lead North Korea to meet some small conditions – even if it doesn’t lead swiftly to denuclearization.
The rest of Kim Jong-il’s interview reiterates his usual claims that nuclear weapons were developed to deter the U.S. and that he remains willing to normalize relations upon the abolition of a U.S. hostile policy. But one curious comment is a reference to his father and founder of the regime Kim Il-sung’s dying wish for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Kim Jong-il’s public message could also be another attempt at a charm offensive to steer international criticism away from its transgressions and intransigence and instead shift the blame toward Washington and Seoul.
Pyongyang’s intention is not all that is uncertain. The Geneva talks will convene amid a changing of the guards for Washington’s head envoy – a full-time diplomat this time – who, like his newly appointed deputy, has no prior experience with North Korea. A telling sign about Glyn Davies appointment could be his nuclear specialty as a functional expert having served as the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly when Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program could be the main sticking point in the Geneva talks and beyond.
Amid many uncertainties, perhaps Washington’s game plan is actually quite certain – that “frankly, it’s a management strategy.”