John Park, a senior program officer who directs the Korea Working Group, analyzes prospects for the July 28-29 U.S.-North Korea “exploratory” meeting in New York. After more than two years of “strategic patience” exercised by the United States in not rushing into negotiations with North Korea without its firm commitment to denuclearization, why is this bilateral meeting taking place now?

July 28, 2011

John Park, a senior program officer who directs the Korea Working Group, analyzes prospects for the July 28-29 U.S.-North Korea “exploratory” meeting in New York. After more than two years of “strategic patience” exercised by the United States in not rushing into negotiations with North Korea without its firm commitment to denuclearization, why is this bilateral meeting taking place now?

How did this “exploratory” meeting between the U.S. and North Korea come about?

First, it’s important to view this New York meeting with North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister, Kim Kye-gwan, in the larger context of the Chinese-led three-stage proposal. Although this proposal is not a new initiative, what is different is the considerable amount of political capital that Beijing has invested in it in an effort to restart the moribund Six-Party Talks.

The proposal is as follows: in stage 1, the two Koreas would seek to improve relations. This would, in turn, lead to U.S.-North Korea talks in stage 2. Based on a satisfactory outcome, this process would culminate in a full resumption of the Six-Party Talks in stage 3. This Chinese-backed proposal was undermined by North Korea’s revelation in May that South Korea had initiated secret inter-Korean talks in which senior South Korean officials reportedly sought to “incentivize” Pyongyang to apologize for the provocations it had carried out in 2010. North Korea’s public disclosure of these secret meetings and announcement that it would not deal with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak during the remainder of his term appeared to have scuttled this three-stage proposal.

The second point here is that this “exploratory” meeting is directly linked to the meeting that took place on July 22 on the sideline of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali between North Korea’s Ri Yong-ho and South Korea’s Wi Sung-lac, envoys to the Six-Party Talks. While it appeared that the earlier Chinese proposal had collapsed because of South Korea’s insistence on an apology for North Korean provocations in 2010, this two-hour inter-Korean meeting at ARF seemed to offer a face-saving way to proceed anew with both envoys stating their respective country’s desire to resume the Six-Party Talks. This created a sufficient opening for Secretary Clinton to formally invite Kim Kye-gwan to New York for meetings with U.S .officials led by Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy.

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What are the prospects for this “exploratory” meeting in New York?

U.S. officials are managing expectations for this meeting, hence the specific reference to it as exploratory in nature rather than some kind of resumption of formal negotiations. The U.S. is trying to keep the momentum going from Bali. U.S. officials will be watching and listening closely for North Korean statements that clearly indicate that Pyongyang is committed to implementing the September 2005 agreement (and other related accords) and most importantly resuming previously agreed denuclearization activities.

If the U.S. – after close consultations with Seoul – determines that there’s sufficient indication by North Korea about its commitment to denuclearization, there may be additional interim meetings. However, whereas the inter-Korean talks on the sidelines in Bali were a quick sprint, all the parties involved recognize that even if the exploratory meeting in New York provides a modest green light, the pace will proceed like a slow walk. The main goal at this delicate stage isn't speed, but preserving any form of rare forward movement in a principled manner.

A sign that may help shed light on how the exploratory meeting is going will be how the U.S. government officially frames the the December 2009 meeting between Kim Kye-gwan and Amb. Bosworth in Pyongyang . If the New York meeting is depicted as a continuation of the December 2009 meeting, this could indicate a modest, but significant, type of resumption of U.S.-North Korean interaction. However, if this exploratory meeting is used by the North Koreans as another venue to call for a U.S.-North Korea peace treaty and make another appeal for food assistance rather than committing to denuclearization, the involvement of Kim and Bosworth in the December 2009 will be downplayed.

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What do the U.S. and North Korea want from this meeting?

Based on recent statements, the U.S. appears to be seeking two things in the following order. First, it seeks a North Korean commitment not to repeat the destabilizing provocations against South Korea in 2010. Second, the U.S. is looking for North Korea’s clear commitment to denuclearization in the manner that it has already agreed to in previous accords, most notably the September 2005 Joint Statement of Principles.

Piecing together North Korea’s statement in Bali following the inter-Korean meeting and recent KCNA statements, it has expressed a desire to resume the Six-Party Talks, proposed concluding a U.S.-North Korea peace treaty, and appealed for humanitarian food aid assistance.

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What’s unique about this current phase?

What looms in the background of this exploratory meeting is the recognition by all the parties that this may be the last chance to meet prior to domestic political matters rising to the top of agendas. With a combination of presidential election campaign cycles and leadership transitions either already underway or soon to start, it will be increasingly difficult to keep all the parties engaged in a sustained manner once 2012 begins. The next alignment of interested parties might not occur until after the new leaderships have settled in following their initial year in power, which would likely be mid-2014.

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