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North Korea talks: US envoy trip shows difficulty of getting to yes

US envoy Bosworth says North Korea talks in Pyongyang were 'useful.' But the North has not committed to returning to six-party talks on its nuclear program.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2009

US special envoy Stephen Bosworth (2nd r.) is seen at the Sunan Airport before leaving for South Korea, in Pyongyang on Thursday.

Yao Ximeng/Xinhua/Reuters


Seoul, South Korea

President Obama's envoy on North Korea has apparently gotten nowhere in bringing North Korea back to six-party talks on giving up its nuclear weapons – a sign of just how difficult it will be to pick up the pieces of the process after a year's hiatus.

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Stephen Bosworth – in Seoul on Thursday after nearly 48 hours in Pyongyang – called the talks, the first of Mr. Obama's presidency between the US and North Korea, "very useful" but admitted that it "remains to be seen when and how" North Korea will return to six-party talks last held in Beijing.

His attempt at bringing North Korea back to negotiations leaves analysts here deeply divided on whether bilateral dialogue between the US and the North is worth the effort.

"You may need a second or a third round of talks," says Lim Dong-won, architect of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea during the presidency of the late Kim Dae-jung. "You cannot solve anything in the first round."

Need for complete denuclearization

Mr. Bosworth said he conveyed President Obama's view of the need for "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." The North Koreans, he said, agreed in principle on the importance of the agreement reached more than four years ago committing all six parties to negotiate denuclearization.

Extensive conversations between Bosworth and the two North Koreans most closely involved negotiations with the US for the past few years appear to have yielded little common ground.

Rather, Bosworth said, "we exchanged views in candid conversations" and "identified common understanding." He did not elaborate other than to say they reviewed "all elements" of the statement signed by the six parties in Beijing in September 2005, in which they agreed to work for denuclearization, along with a peace treaty to replace the Korean War Armistice, a "peace regime" that would include diplomatic relations with North Korea, and massive aid for North Korea.

Asked whether he had conveyed a message to the North Koreans from Obama, he responded, "I am the message." And, he said, he had not discussed, much less requested, a meeting with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, who North Korea's media said was visiting a tractor factory during his visit.

The sharpest indication of the frustration in getting North Korea to return to the table was Bosworth's terse response when asked if he and the North Korean negotiators, Kang Sok-ju, the first vice foreign minister, and Kim Kye-gwan, the next-ranking vice foreign minister who led the North Korean team at talks during the Bush administration, had agreed on more talks or set a date.