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?"