Joshua PollackAnother North Korea Reading Comprehension Test

Under what conditions is the United States government prepared to meet with North Korea to discuss its nuclear program? Back in late August, Washington brushed off Pyongyang’s expressions of willingness to return to the Six-Party Talks. The North Koreans lately have gone further, affirming through the Foreign Ministry (via KCNA) that they are prepared to implement the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement that had (re)committed them to denuclearization. The response so far from Washington: a stony silence.

While the South Korean and Chinese press picked up on the signal, it doesn’t appear that the American media has done so. No questions about it seem to have been directed to the State Department or White House press secretaries, and I’ve yet to come across any published reports that mention it.

So what does the Administration want? Past statements indicate that it wants to see actual implementation of the  September 2005 Joint Statement before it will return to the table.  The most detailed statement was given by the State Department’s Philip Crowley in a September 1 press briefing:

[T]here are specific obligations that North Korea has agreed to in the past. Just making public statements of a willingness to come back to a negotiation is not enough. There are specific steps under the 2005 joint statement that North Korea can take to demonstrate that it is, in fact, committed to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. We are prepared to engage North Korea as part of this process, but in light of the sinking of the Cheonan and other provocative steps that North Korea has taken in recent months, including nuclear tests, including missile firings, we want to see a fundamental change in North Korea’s behavior. And as it demonstrates that it’s prepared to engage the United States and other countries constructively, we will be prepared to respond.

Pressed to be more specific about what steps North Korea should take, Crowley declined to do so:

I don’t have a laundry list. We are prepared to engage North Korea. We want to see an advance from the situation that we are currently in. But it is up to North Korea first and foremost to demonstrate, not just by words but by actions, that it’s prepared to follow a more constructive path. As North Korea demonstrates to us that it’s prepared to engage constructively, then we will evaluate those actions and, after consultations with other countries, be prepared to respond.

Actions, But Which Actions?

The only problem is, the September 2005 Joint Statement consists more of sweeping affirmations of intent than specific steps. But the action plan of February 13, 2007 (“Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement”) does contain, among other things, this commitment:

The DPRK will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility, including the reprocessing facility and invite back IAEA personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications as agreed between IAEA and the DPRK.

Inviting the IAEA back to verify the shutdown of Yongbyon is the one item on the list that could be performed unilaterally. Is this what Washington expects? We don’t know. In an October 20 press briefing, Crowley declined to say:

We continue our broad consultations with other countries in the Six-Party process and I recognize that across the board different countries are going to have their own views on what it will take for the Six-Party Talks to resume. We have our own views and we are sharing those with the other governments.

Readers could be forgiven for wondering if the Administration actually has decided what steps it would consider sufficient for a return to negotiations.


  1. Jeffrey (History)

    Actually, the North Koreans could be forgiven for wondering if the Administration actually has decided what steps it would consider sufficient for a return to negotiations.

    • joshua (History)

      Sure, them too. Private U.S. delegations have started visiting Pyongyang again lately, but if any of them are bearing any clarifying messages, it’s not readily apparent.

      From the Oct. 18 State Dep’t press briefing:

      QUESTION: On North Korea – would you mind if I talk about North Korea?

      MR. CROWLEY: I welcome the opportunity to talk about North Korea.

      QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Seems like a bunch of specialists are – of the United States are invited to North Korea, including Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Hecker of Los Alamos. And what is your comment on that and do you see any policy change coming upon their – I mean, after their visit or —

      MR. CROWLEY: Well, there are academics who have made periodic trips to North Korea. Mr. Hecker is one of them. Mr. Pritchard is another. And I think we’re – Mr. Pritchard has given us a heads-up that he’s about to head to North Korea in the next couple of weeks.

      QUESTION: Change of subject?

      MR. CROWLEY: But we – I mean, we value that kind of dialogue, but obviously, it’s – it is not a substitute for the specific actions that North Korea has to take to live up to its obligations.

  2. joshua (History)

    A note to new commenters:

    Consider this space an opportunity for a conversation, not an outpouring of bile. Insulting language is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.

  3. Luiz (History)

    In my opinion King Jong’s latest threats and the transfer of power to his son without any consultation to the people represent the last drop to turn the bucket! No more talks, attack North Korea and make this greedy crazy lineage of murderous dictators never be able to gain real power again! They are a threat to world peace!

    • joshua (History)

      It may be that North Korea is a threat to world peace, notably through its exports of missile and nuclear technology. Certainly, it’s a benighted regime that the great majority of North Koreans suffer under. But attacking the North would be a grave disservice to the people of South Korea, and possibly also Japan. Their welfare cannot be disregarded.

  4. Pete (History)

    In the spirit of getting a conversation started (i.e. I have a hunch that I can’t really back up and I hope that somebody will either help me out or correct me), I think that the most recent willingness of North Korea to engage in talks is simply them trying to gain some credibility for Kim Jong Un.

    If talks were actually to occur, I would be surprised if North Korea shows up with a new message. I think they’ll show up with Kim Jong Un in the lead, say “no”, and the next day North Korean media will say how strong their new leader is because he stood up to international pressure. If these talks don’t happen… then how will Kim Jong Un earn credibility? From Washington’s perspective it is better to remain silent on this until North Korea does something besides simply asking for more talks.

    • joshua (History)

      I’d be surprised. Kim Jong Il never got personally involved in the nuclear talks. He would have outranked all others present by several notches. Arguably, it would have diminished him to be present.

      The North Korean diplomats most closely associated with the nuclear talks in the past — Kang Sok Ju, Kim Gye Gwan, and Ri Yong Ho, Kim’s deputy — have been promoted recently. That’s who I would expect to continue to represent the North in any such setting.


      Nor would I expect the North to treat the talks too lightly. At a minimum, they’d be interested in trying to get some goodies out of the process. Food and energy aid, for example. But talks don’t seem to be in the offing anytime soon, so the point may be moot.

  5. Charles (History)

    Call me simple, but I don’t understand how countries ask for aid with one hand and then threaten with the other. We’ve all heard about biting the hand that feeds us, but when that happens, what do we actually do? Wag our finger at them before giving them more aid? Humans and human relations (whether it be a personal level or international level) really is a strange thing…

    • Carey Sublette (History)

      _Call me simple, but I don’t understand how countries ask for aid with one hand and then threaten with the other._

      The DPRK regime is holding its own population hostage. The aid offered is (mostly*) not intended for the benefit for the regime, but for the North Korean people who have no choice in their leadership.

      *Some of the aid has been the result of a different form of extortion – basically protection money to shut down the nuclear weapon program.

  6. chris (History)

    I cannot see anything good coming of this confluence of forces; as I see it, the Obama administration is hung up on making sure it is not made to look foolish, or ends up getting accused of playing politics with the North Korea question a la Bush, while the reality is that North Korea probably has absolutely no intention of denuclearizing anyway but wants to talk so as to end its isolation and appease the Chinese.

    From that perspective, the unilateral verification of Yongbyon by the North would be a smart move; a practical step which does at least meet the broadest definition of a sincere-looking move towards denuclearization. And from the U.S.’ perspective, even though North Korea has no plan to denuclearize, it might be better to take that verification and engage in a little jaw-jaw in order to stop the North throwing its toys out of the pram, again.

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