As the North Korean delegation to the U.S. heads back home this weekend, there were no breakthroughs to report out of their final meeting in New York, although the Pyongyang representatives did take the opportunity to suggest that financial incentives might be helpful in bringing them back to the negotiating table.
A team of seven North Korea officials met all day with a group of American former officials and Asia experts Friday in New York under the banner of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Korea Society. No administration officials attended the meetings, despite that the State Department's Sung Kim did meet with North Korea negotiator Rin Gun in San Diego Tuesday and in New York last weekend.
The sessions were led by a quartet of senior former U.S. diplomats: NCAFP's Donald Zagoria and George Schwab, Korea Society president Evans Revere, and former Ambassador to China Winston Lord.
"There weren't any major breakthroughs of where do we go from here," reported Lord immediately following the meeting.
While there were frank discussions both in open session and in side meetings throughout the day, nobody on the U.S. side came away with the impression that the North Koreans were ready to make any concessions or adjustments to their policies that would precipitate a resumption of the Six Party Talks, which North Korea declared dead after unilaterally withdrawing in April.
There was also no indication from the North Korean side that there was a deal in place to have Ambassador Stephen Bosworth take up the North Korean's on their invitation to go to Pyongyang.
Revere said that the North Koreans seemed genuinely interested in finding a way to resume official dialogue with the U.S., but did not show any indication they would alter their positions either on a commitment to denuclearization or on returning to a multilateral forum, both prerequisites clearly outlined by the American government.
"What I heard today in the meetings tracked fairly closely with most of the recent public statements that North Korea has been making on all of these issues," Revere said.
The North Korean position on denuclearization is "rather ambiguous," said Zagoria, "On the multilateral thing, what they repeatedly say is that if the bilateral talks with the United States go well, then they would go back to multilateral process."
The U.S. side made clear to the North Koreans that position would not allow formal negotiations to resume. "We left no illusions that this process could be bilateral alone," said Lord.
At one point, the U.S. side put forth a presentation proposing cultural and educational confidence building measures, along the lines of the recent trip by the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang last year.
One North Korean official responded by suggesting that "economic confidence building measures" could be helpful, which attendees took as meaning the North Koreans were seeking bribes of goods or cash in order to return to the table.
"It's like buying the same horse three times," said Schwab, noting the failure of past efforts at using economic incentives to woo Pyongyang into cooperating, "We're trying at least to propose a horse of a different color."
There are rumors that the delegation from Pyongyang is planning to extend its stay in New York two more days so that further interactions with the State Department can occur, but the State Department declined to confirm.
It was not all bad news out of New York, said Revere, who conveyed that, "the atmosphere, tone and the substance of the DPRK side's presentation was somewhat more positive and accommodating this year."
He quickly noted that past years' discussions had been quickly followed by provocative actions such as missile launches, nuclear tests, and the like.
Two senior Congressional staffers attended the session, Frank Jannuzi and Keith Luse of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Other U.S. participants were Columbia University professors Gerald Curtis and Charles Armstrong, Syracuse professor Frederick Carriere, Georgetown professor and Bush administration NSC Asia director Victor Cha, the Asia Society's John Delury, the Korea Society's Donald Gregg and Thomas Hubbard, Corey Hinderstein from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Leon Sigal from the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project, and James Laney from Emory University.
On the North Korean side of the table there were six participants in addition to Ri Gun. The others were DPRK Foreign Ministry staffers Song Il Hyok, Hwang Myong Sim, Choe Son Hui, and Kwon Jong Gun, and DPRK U.N. delegation officials Pak Song-il and Kim Myong-gil.