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.

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

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.

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.

"No," Bosworth responded, ending his brief appearance at the Foreign Ministry here after conveying the results of his talks to South Korean chief nuclear negotiator Wi Sun-lac.

Bosworth will now travel to Tokyo, Beijing, and Msocow to brief other parties to the six-party talks.

S. Korea not surprised by lack of major results

The disappointment of Bosworth's long-awaited first mission to Pyongyang did not come as a surprise to South Korean officials. He had assured them beforehand that he would stick to the topic of six-party talks and not talk about a peace treaty or US-North Korean diplomatic relations other than to note that such topics were included in the 2005 joint statement.

Mr. Lim, the architect of the Sunshine policy who accompanied then-President Kim to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il for the first inter-Korean summit, says he expects US and North Korean negotiators to be able to discuss "the modality" of six-part talks "as well as the agenda," but adds, "I don't expect an agreement" in the first attempt.

Park Yong-ok, former arms control officer for South Korea's Defense Ministry, adopts quite a different view.

Key gauge: Has North 'changed its ways?'

"No matter how many agreements they [the North Koreans] sign, they will be useless," he says. "We have to make sure they change their ways."

Citing the nuclear tests conducted by North Korea in October 2006 and again last May, he states flatly, "Any agreement made by North Korea holds no significance."

Larry Niksch, senior analyst with the Congressional Research Service, says the US "will call it a success if they get a commitment for six-party talks."

He doubts, however, if North Korea will ever give up its nuclear program, despite economic difficulties exacerbated by UN sanctions..

"What worries me most is if, in the next two or three years, they develop a nuclear warhead for their missiles or an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach US territory."

Those two issues get to the heart of debate among analysts about the significance of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs to date.

So far, North Korea is not believed capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to a target even though the North is believed to have between six and a dozen warheads. And North Korea's long-range Taepdong-2 missile landed in the western Pacific when test-fired last April – far short of Hawaii or Alaska. It's believed an advanced Taepodong-2 could eventually go that far.

US negotiators "will have to develop a different nuclear strategy," says Mr. Niksch, if their nuclear and missile programs reach the point at which they pose a direct threat to the US. At that stage, he says, "we will have to go back to the drawing board."

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