For most people working on North Korea, it is axiomatic that the current confrontation will not be resolved without talks; in a useful special issue on the North Korea question at Global Asia, an array of voices make the case in various ways, from Robert Galucci, to Muthiah Alagappa, to yours truly. The question is really how to get there, and there are essentially only two basic options, although they may be linked.
The first is to call Pyongyang’s bluff and offer bilateral talks with no preconditions. The insistence on “no preconditions” is generally seen as favoring the North Korean desire to hold off denuclearization talks until peace regime negotiations have been launched or even completed; this is obviously a non-starter. But if “no preconditions” really means “no preconditions,” then the US should be able to bring denuclearization to the table as well.
"It is axiomatic that the current confrontation will not be resolved without talks."
The other route is the multilateral one, which took me back to the details of the Joint Statement on North Korea signed by Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov at the time of the Xi-Putin summit back in July; the full text has been hiding for some time and thus the proposal is difficult to assess, but it is now posted on the Foreign Ministry website. A close reading suggests that it is not necessarily as adverse to American, Japanese and Korean interests as is typically thought. The Xi-Putin plan has a number of steps that are supposed to be choreographed as follows:
- “The DPRK, by way of a voluntary political decision, announces a moratorium on the testing of nuclear explosive devices and ballistic missile tests.” Note that this halt is announced.
- “The United States and the Republic of Korea should, accordingly, refrain from large-scale joint exercises.” Note the language could permit some wiggle room; the allies simply refrain, and from “large-scale joint exercises,” suggesting that scale alone might be modulated.
- What comes next is the tricky part: “Simultaneously, the conflicting parties begin talks and assert common principles of their relations, including the non-use of force, the renunciation of aggression, peaceful coexistence and determination to do all they can to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula with a view to promoting a complex resolution of all problems, including the nuclear issue.”
- Several things are important here, some again to the US advantage, others more troubling. On the positive side, the negotiations are supposed to begin simultaneously with the freeze, at least acknowledging the obvious political problem in the US of a freeze-for-freeze that leads nowhere.
- Second, and less clear, is whether this second phase would be a real negotiation. In this regard, the proposal is a bit of a muddle. On the one hand, it (positively) calls on all parties to “comply with the commitments formulated in the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, and to re-launch, as soon as possible, the dialogue on the comprehensive resolution of problems on the Korean Peninsula.” Those negotiations were unambiguously about denuclearization. On the other hand, the language above suggests a re-litigation of principles and does not restate denuclearization as a firm objective of the talks. The US will have to make concessions—most notably on sanctions and the timetable which is likely to be prolonged. But why would the US enter into a negotiation that did not address the nuclear issue in some concrete way?
Are the North Koreans interested in any of this? To be honest, we don’t really know. A case in point is the coverage of Choe Sun Hui’s comments at the recent non-proliferation confab in Moscow, which were almost comically divergent: from RT's suggestion of disinterest (“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] is not planning to hold talks on nuclear weapons and the US has to get along with the DPRK’s nuclear status.”), to Yonhap’s more conditional coverage (essentially that the DPRK is open to talks—as Choe herself has said earlier this year—but only if the US gives up its hostile policy or if bilateral issues are resolved first). Until we see the full text of those remarks, it is hard to say whether the North Koreans are rejecting any diplomacy or sending a signal.
But the main point is that if these routes to talks are not to the administration’s liking, what is? Is the administration holding out for sanctions to take a bigger bite to get leverage? Or is the work simply not being done, both in the US and with the five parties, to move some sort of agenda—either bilateral or multilateral—forward? I fear the latter, but would happily be proven wrong.