North Korean officials threatened to reconsider existing agreements with the United States in a recent meeting in Singapore, two sources familiar with the discussions told The Cable.
The North Korean warning comes as analysts speculate that Pyongyang may be preparing a fresh nuclear test, a development that could raise tensions in Asia and embarrass U.S. President Barack Obama in the middle of a closely fought re-election campaign.
Top U.S. experts held a "track two" meeting in the island nation in late July, during which the North Koreans hardened their negotiating position and rejected any return to the latest deal struck between the two sides, but nevertheless left the door open to further talks with the United States and the international community.
The meeting was the first of its kind since North Korea tried and failed to launch a rocket into space in April, which precipitated a U.S. withdrawal from the Feb. 29 bilateral agreement to give North Korea food aid in exchange for concessions on the country's nuclear and missile programs.
At the secret meetings in Singapore, the North Koreans told two U.S. experts they were no longer interested in resurrecting that arrangement and said they were reconsidering their previous agreements to eventually denuclearize as well.
On the North Korean side of the table were Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations and Choe Son Hui, the deputy director-general of the North American affairs bureau in the DPRK foreign ministry. On the American side were six experts led by Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator, and including Corey Hinderstein, vice president of the international program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Some reports said that there was a also a July meeting in New York between Han and Clifford Hart, the U.S. special envoy to the defunct Six-Party Talks.
"The agenda [in Singapore] focused on a variety of issues. One important topic was the future of U.S.-North Korean relations," said one source familiar with the meeting. "The other topics were nuclear safety, nuclear security, cooperative ways of monitoring denuclearization, and the whole raft of issues people discuss at nuclear summits."
When the conversation was on the future of bilateral relations, the North Korean side made clear it was no longer interested in the Feb. 29 agreement, which included a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, a return of international inspectors, and 240,000 tons of food aid, both sources said.
The North Koreans now want the United States to make concessions up front.
"Their position has shifted. Whereas before, under the Leap Day deal, it was simultaneous actions, as with the September 2005 joint statement, simultaneous actions were one of the key aspects. There is now emphasis on unilateral action by the U.S. and then the North Koreans may respond," one source said.
The North Koreans told their American interlocutors they were thinking internally about whether or not to scuttle the September 2005 joint statement altogether. That statement committed North Korea to eventually getting rid of its nuclear weapons program.
An Aug. 9 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists written by Frank Pabian and Sigfried Hecker speculated that North Korea may be only weeks away from completing the preparations necessary to conduct a third nuclear test using either a plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU) device or both. At the Singapore meeting, the North Koreans didn't broach the topic.
"They didn't make any explicit statements about their nuclear program," one source said, "but I think it's very clear that their program is moving forward. That doesn't necessarily mean nuclear tests. It's quite likely their HEU program is also moving forward."
The source noted that as part of their formal presentation, the very first point the North Korean officials made was that their new leadership is not changing the late leader Kim Jong Il's line that North Korea has no eternal enemies or eternal friends.
"That's a very clear signal that they still want to make continuing efforts to improve relations with the U.S. and are indeed are interested in that. But they are toughening their position and that's in part because they are feeling pretty good about where they are," the source said.
The North Koreans believe they have weathered the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- waiting for Pyongyang to make the first move while strengthening ties with U.S. allies in Asia.
"The North Koreans feel pretty confident in their position. They are still keeping the door open to improving ties with the U.S. but the price is getting higher and it's becoming more difficult," the source said. "At some point somebody will be back to the table with them. They are getting ready for that with a much tougher negotiating position. They think they're sitting pretty."
Of course, North Korea still faces a food crisis, devastating floods, and an economic crisis. Pyongyang might seek to trade nuclear concessions in exchange for aid, as it has in the past. But as long as the country continues to get assistance from China, its motivation to make concessions is low.
"They probably can continue to progress economically while avoiding making concessions on the nuclear front with the support of China and that seems to be the option that they've chosen," the source observed.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.