As the Obama administration closes in on an agenda for bilateral talks with Pyongyang, it looks as though the United States and South Korea are back on the same page after a protracted spell of miscommunication…
The State Department still has not indicated if it will accept Pyongyang’s invitation for a visit by U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth. A senior South Korean official told the Korean Hankyoreh newspaper last Friday, however, that “Special envoy (Stephen) Bosworth will visit North Korea next month.” It was unclear at the time if the report had any concrete truth behind it.
But yesterday, the Korea Times quoted South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, saying that the United States is “expected to make a decision soon on the date and agenda of bilateral talks with North Korea.” This statement has been corroborated by The Cable, which reported that the United States has already put forth a proposal. This report came a day after North Korea expressed impatience.
The United States has yet to make any formal public announcements about an agenda. Yesterday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly limited his comments on the matter to the status quo policy. “We are willing to have bilateral talks with the North Koreans if these talks are conducted in the context of the Six-Party Talks and if they lead to the resumption of the Six-Party Talks,” Kelly said.
But the statements made by Wi Sung-lac and the unnamed senior South Korean official indicate that the South Koreans are aware of a U.S. plan, probably even more than they let on. Since North Korea began insisting on bilateral talks, the United States has uneasily assumed a vanguard diplomatic role. Each member of the six-party talks has accepted the prospect of bilateral talks provided that the goal is to revive the six-party negotiations. Yet this approach has not been without anxiety.
South Korea has been gently pushed to the side despite President Lee Myung-bak’s “grand bargain” proposal. Last month, South Korean media highlighted a potential rift between the United States and South Korea, perhaps exaggerating at times for fear of being relegated to the periphery. In light of this uneasiness, it is a relief that the United States and South Korea are no longer refuting or overlooking each other’s public statements.
Also noteworthy is the seeming coordination between South Korea and Japan. In response to Pyongyang’s announcement on Tuesday that it has reprocessed all of its 8,000 spent nuclear rods and made “significant achievements” in producing another atomic bomb, South Korea and Japan both used the word “regret” to express their outlook on the matter. It may simply be coincidence, but it seems possible that they coordinated this careful word choice to present a calculated and unified message.