The North Korea community has been stirred up over a piece by Alastair Gale and Carol Lee at the Wall Street Journal. The story argues that “days before North Korea’s latest nuclear-bomb test, the Obama administration secretly agreed to talks to try to formally end the Korean War, dropping a longstanding condition that Pyongyang first take steps to curtail its nuclear arsenal.” The meeting purportedly took place at the UN, but the story does not report who exactly was talking with whom. In a piece at Reuters, State Department spokesman John Kirby was quick to respond, putting a very different spin on events. “To be clear,” according to Kirby, “it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty. We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any discussion. The North rejected our response.”
If there is anything new here, it is extremely subtle. Kirby’s remarks could be read to say “we are happy to discuss a peace regime, but the Six Party Talks come first.” That would suggest absolutely no change in US policy whatsoever. But as the headline suggests, it could be read to suggest that the US considered rolling denuclearization and a peace regime into one omnibus negotiation.
The Joint Statement of September 19, 2005 states clearly that “the directly related parties will negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum,” implying that a peace regime would grow out of successful 6PT negotiations. Yet over the last year, the North Koreans have floated the idea that the US should negotiate a peace regime first as a “confidence building” measure; a version of the proposal from last October can be found in a letter circulated by the North Koreans at the Security Council (S/2015/799).
There are so many problems with this proposal that it is hard to know where to start, including the fact that the US would be negotiating the normalization of political relations with a nuclear North Korea without any commitments whatsoever on denuclearization. Moreover, the demand for bilateral negotiations means that South Korea and China would be excluded. Even the North Koreans agreed at the 2007 North-South summit “to work together to advance the matter of having the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned to convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war.” (That Roh accepted the “three or four parties” generated a firestorm at the time, but no one seriously thinks such negotiations could take place without all four parties at the table).
So if there is anything new here—and that is a big if—it is the consideration of negotiations aimed at reaching a grand bargain on denuclearization and a peace regime. It is wrong to dismiss this proposal out of hand. It might complicate the negotiations; it might provide for an expanded menu of linkages and trades.
But the main point of the Gale and Lee piece is not what the American might have hinted, but that the North Koreans immediately said “no” and went on to test. It’s hard to avoid the obvious conclusion: North Korea is uninterested in negotiating over its weapons programs. The looming question: will the closing of Kaesong, the decline in the China trade, US secondary sanctions and perhaps even some new Chinese sanctions change Kim Jung Un’s calculus?