The Cable

Quiet progress made in U.S.-North Korea talks

Despite initial reports that next to nothing was accomplished during last week's discussions between U.S. and North Korean officials in New York and San Diego, an administration official told The Cable that substantial progress was made in behind-the-scenes talks between Sung Kim, the State Department's special envoy to the six party talks, and Ri Gun, North Korea's lead negotiator.

According to an account from an official with access to information on the negotiations, which a second source has confirmed, the U.S. side put forth a proposal with three main conditions. The first was that the North Koreans agree to have exactly two formal bilateral meetings with the United States before returning to a multilateral forum. The North Koreans agreed. They had previously said they would return to the multilateral talks only if the bilateral meetings went well.

The second condition put forth by the U.S. was that Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, who has been invited repeatedly to Pyongyang, would be able to meet with Kong Sok Ju, North Korea's first vice foreign minister. According to the official, the North Koreans also had no problem with that.
 
Bosworth's visit would be seen as a failure unless some demonstrable progress was made and it is widely believed that only the top officials in Kim Jong Il's regime have real negotiating authority. By meeting with Kong, Bosworth could leapfrog Ri and his boss ,Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan.
 
The third condition put forth by the U.S. side is the main sticking point. The United States wanted North Korea to abide by its previous commitments, namely the Sept. 19, 2005 declaration in which the North Koreans committed "to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.

Here the North Koreans demurred, according to the official, saying they wanted to resume talks based on the idea of "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," a nuanced but important distinction.

One Korea hand who closely follows the issue explains the difference:

"Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is a formulation that has been used in previous U.S.-DPRK joint documents including the October 2000 communiqué. It broadens the scope of what we are talking about to include more than just North Korea. That may sound silly since we all know there are no nuclear weapons anymore in South Korea, but the North sees this as a political issue of balance."

So if "denuclearization" is something the U.S. side has agreed to in the past, the obvious question is, why not just agree to use that as the basis for negotiations now? One administration official who is not directly involved in the discussion said the U.S. side could be trying to set limits on what the initial resumption of talks should encompass.
 
"Of course, we want to reframe to address [denuclearization] at some point, though I thought we really just wanted reaffirmation of the Sept. 5 declaration, rather than fighting the bigger fight right now," the official said.
 
The outside-the-government Korea hand offered a more pessimistic interpretation:

"If the administration is sticking, it may be because it doesn't see any immediate political benefit to beginning talks since there is bound to be domestic criticism and there is no guarantee of achieving quick results. There is good reason to be skeptical about any North Korean offers. But at some point the issue becomes, how high do you set the bar at this very initial stage of contacts?"

The Cable

Clinton-Okada summit falls victim to DPJ infighting

For the protocol-obsessed Japanese, scheduling a cabinet-level meeting and then canceling it is a rare occurrence. But that's exactly what happened today when the State Department had to withdraw its announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet Friday with Japanese Foreign Minister Katusya Okada.

The diplomatic SNAFU is emblematic of the shifting ground underneath the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which took over the government in September, campaigned on a pledge to reform relations with the U.S., but now in power, they are battling internally to determine how far and wide those changes should go. The latest twist certainly won't dampen the view of those who've proclaimed a "crisis" in the U.S. relationship with Japan since the elections; a State Department official told The Cable that Clinton was still holding time in her Friday schedule, just in case Okada is able to make the trip.

Reports out of Japan suggest that Okada wanted to secure a deal on his pet issue, the Futenma air base in Okinawa, ahead of President Obama's trip to Tokyo next week. But Okada is being reined in by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who doesn't want Okada gallivanting around making policy while the issue is still a matter of intense internal discussion within the Japanese government.

And both sides are trying to recover from a tumultuous couple of weeks in the relationship following the Tokyo visit of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was seen as focusing too much on Futenma, a minor issue for the U.S. but a major emotional hot button for the Japanese.

More broadly, the center of gravity in the U.S.-Japan relationship may be shifting from the Defense Department to the State Department. While Okada might have wanted to focus on Futenma, administration sources said that Clinton's goal was much broader. She wanted to start engaging the new Japanese leadership on a larger set of strategic issues, from Afghanistan to China and everything in between.

The agenda shows the Obama administration's desire to focus less on incremental military issues such as military basing and start bringing the discussion with the new Japanese government around to larger strategic issues. But the Obama administration is unable to advance the conversation due to the ongoing foreign policy fight within the Japanese cabinet.

Hatoyama is refereeing a complex battle between various elements of his party and his cabinet over the direction of Japanese foreign policy, especially with regard to the U.S.-Japan alliance. Okada's interests may lie in making things for Hatoyama as difficult as possible, hence the (maybe) cancelled trip.

Inside the Japan policy infrastructure in Washington, the officials in charge of managing the relationship are taking a two pronged-approach. The first element of their strategy is "wait and see," letting the new DPJ government settle internal disputes and then come to the U.S. side with policy positions, negotiating stances, and the like.

The second part of the approach is "Don't blink," meaning that the U.S. interlocutors are trying to avoid overreacting to what some see as antagonistic or contradictory statements on the alliance coming out of different DPJ leaders. Also, the U.S. managers are determined not to negotiate away any of their positions while the new Japanese government is going through its growing pains.

"We're waiting for them to give us some indication of where they see the path as leading from here," said one senior U.S. official dealing with the U.S.-Japan alliance.

There is also a feeling among Obama administration Japan managers that the reports about the "crisis" in U.S.-Japan relations have been way overblown and that while a number of issues in the alliance are now up for discussion, which is new, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

"You can take any of this stuff and make a story out of it, but none of these issues are unmanageable," the official said, "The U.S. and Japan still rely on each other in a lot of fundamental ways."

The official said that there is a pretty clear path out of the current tense situation, whenever the Japanese are ready to take it. For example, on the issue of the plan for the relocation of the Futenma air base, U.S. officials believe that ultimately there is no real alternative to the current plan. Okada's idea, to combine Futenma with the Kadena air base, is seen as a non-starter inside the Obama administration.

However, there are "sweeteners" that could alleviate some concerns of Okinawa residents and allow Hatoyama and Okada to save face by claiming they got concessions before ultimately accepting the bulk of the current plan as is.

But the talks between the United States and Japan haven't gotten to that stage and probably won't by the time Obama visits Tokyo next week. Obama himself is said to be too far above the issue to negotiate such details and is likely to simply affirm the strength of the alliance, mark its 50th anniversary, and leave the negotiations for lower officials to resume after the trip.

Traditionally, the Japan relationship inside Washington more heavily managed by the Defense Department as compared to relations with other countries. There are historical and logistical explanations for this phenomenon, but with new administrations on both sides, a change might be in store.

At the National Security Council, the Japan policy is managed by Jeffrey Bader, a former Ambassador and senior State Department official and Daniel Russel, former State Department Japan office director.

At the State Department, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell is in charge of all things Japan, aided by Japan desk chief Kevin Maher. Campbell has been back and forth to Tokyo several times since assuming his post and is scheduled to stop in Tokyo on Thursday on his way home from Burma.

The Japan team at the Pentagon is centered around Assistant Secretary Gen. Chip Gregson, Principal Deputy Derek Mitchell, Deputy Michael Schiffer, and Japan desk officer Suzanne Bassala.

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