North Korea nuclear talks: Did John Kerry soften conditions?

North Korea nuclear talks are possible if the North gives up its nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry said this weekend. That's not new, but Kerry's tone has worried some analysts.

Junji Kurokawa/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to students at Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan Monday. Kerry is here as part of Asian tour amid a tense situation over a possible missile launch by North Korea.

Has the US relaxed the conditions under which it might talk with North Korea

That question arises due to statements made by Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend. In Tokyo on an East Asia swing, Secretary Kerry said Pyongyang would find a “ready partner” in the US if it began to give up its nuclear ambitions. Kerry added that he might dispatch a US representative to discussions in North Korea or talk through backchannels if North Korean officials first made the right concessions.

“I’m not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted because of a kind of predetermined stubbornness,” Kerry told US-based reporters.

In terms of substance this is hardly different from past US statements on the subject. Obama administration officials have long insisted they won’t meet with North Korean counterparts unless the latter say they will curtail their nuclear weapons efforts. They prefer that all dealings with Pyongyang occur in the international context of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

But some critics are worried about the tone of Kerry’s words, the implication of a sort of let’s-get-on-with-it attitude. They want to make sure the White House does not make it easier for North Korea to meet preconditions for negotiations.

For instance, the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative on Monday issued a statement titled “Kerry’s Dangerous Overtures on North Korea.”

“The Obama administration should clarify Kerry’s suggestion that Washington has lowered the bar for direct talks with North Korea. The United States has a long and sordid history of offering concessions to Pyongyang without making any progress towards denuclearization. Lawmakers should call on President Obama not to engage in direct talks with North Korea unless Pyongyang has made meaningful and unambiguous steps to meet its longstanding commitments to denuclearize and dismantle its ballistic missile programs,” write FPI’s Chris Griffin and Robert Zarate.

Might the Obama team be thinking of “lowering the bar” to direct bilateral negotiations? Well, given how high tensions have ratcheted up on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea threatens war, it’s always possible the administration is considering a new approach to cooling rhetoric in the region. But it is more likely that Kerry was simply repeating current policy. And the real story there may be that the existing US conditions for North Korea to enter talks involve concessions Pyongyang appears less and less likely to meet.

In the past the US has suggested that it will meet with North Korea after the latter renounces its nuclear weapons, for instance, or agrees to stop producing the fissile material that’s at the heart of those weapons. The US also wants Pyongyang to stop the barrage of threats to its neighbors and refrain from missile tests.

But a number of experts increasingly believe that North Korea is now determined to be recognized as a full nuclear weapons state. Pyongyang appears to believe that its survival depends on its nukes, as its traditional military decays in place and seems technically obsolete compared to US and South Korean forces, and its economy remains a shadow of those of its East Asian neighbors.

While continuing to press for verifiable North Korean nuclear dismantlement, the US should hold no illusions that diplomacy by itself will produce a nuclear-free North Korea, Institute for International Security Studies nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick tweeted earlier this week.

“The US cannot offer a substitute to what [North Korea] thinks its nukes provide: a guarantee of regime survival & a path to Peninsular dominance,” tweeted Fitzpatrick.

The only way the current Korean situation ends happily? “Unification,” Mr. Fitzpatrick added.

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