Can the U.S. bring North Korea back to nuclear talks?
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
October 14th, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Can the U.S. bring North Korea back to nuclear talks?

By CNN National Security Producer Jamie Crawford

Pomp and circumstance, a glitzy dinner at the White House and a new trade agreement with the United States greeted South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on his arrival to Washington on Wednesday. One nagging issue still remained - the international effort to denuclearize South Korea's hard-line neighbor to the north.

For U.S. President Barack Obama, the path forward for North Korea could not be clearer.

"If Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations, it will invite even more pressure and isolation," Obama said at a joint news conference Thursday alongside Lee. "If the North abandons its quest for nuclear weapons and moves towards denuclearization, it will enjoy greater security and opportunity for its people.

The quest for a nuke-free Korean Peninsula is a venture that has exasperated administrations both past and present. The six-party talks, a vehicle launched during the administration of President George W. Bush to negotiate an end to Pyongyang's nuclear program, comprise both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. At various points, progress seemed to be made, only to have North Korea either pull out over disagreements on verifiable declarations of their nuclear program, or to engage in belligerent behavior that scuttled the talks.

The last full round of talks were held in 2008.

The United States has called repeatedly for North Korea to undertake a series of prerequisite steps, such as halting missile and nuclear tests, and further development of nuclear weapons, to show they are interested in coming back to talks.

After taking office in 2009, Obama was met with a set of provocations. North Korea test-fired missiles and conducted a new round of nuclear tests. A small opening toward the resumption of talks was reversed after North Korea was accused of sinking a South Korean naval vessel in the Yellow Sea, followed by their artillery shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010 in which two civilians were killed.

In July, Stephen Bosworth, the State Department's point man on North Korea, and North Korean diplomats met in New York to explore ways both sides might return to multilateral discussions over the North's nuclear program. It was the first direct set of talks between the United States and North Korea since 2008. Both sides labeled the talks as "constructive," and seemed to indicate future talks could be possible.

One variable in any future talks will be the leadership transition under way in Pyongyang. After suffering a stroke in 2008, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il seems to have engineered a succession plan that would eventually hand power to his son, Kim Jong-un.

"Nobody knows exactly how it affects the talks," says Victor Cha, a member of the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It just means there is ever more uncertainty on the North Korean side than we are normally accustomed to, and we are accustomed to a great deal of uncertainty."

Many North Korea watchers do not see new leadership as being inclined to reach a deal in the near future. If anything, they say, a young and inexperienced leader like Kim's son will be more inclined to show toughness when it comes to holding on to the North's current stock of weapons.

North Korea's own view of it's status in the world nuclear club may also figure into their decision whether or not to rejoin any talks.

"North Korea hasn't shown much interest in the topic of denuclearization," said Scott Snyder, who heads the Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, Pyongyang seems more interested in "locking in their gains and finding forums through which to try and insist on implicit recognition of their status as a nuclear-capable country," he said.

While the North may exhibit a willingness to return to some sort of dialogue in the future, "they haven't committed in a tangible way to the agenda for dialogue that had previously existed in the context of the six-party talks," Snyder said.

China, North Korea's greatest benefactor and trading partner, has great leverage and could play a large role in getting Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Analysts who follow the situation closely say China seems more interested at this stage in having the United States pay all the diplomatic and political costs of negotiating with the Kim regime, because Beijing does not see a direct threat from the North's nuclear program.

Cha says the tsunami-triggered nuclear accident in Japan in March could change China's calculus.

"If there is any country that is directly threatened by North Korean nuclear mismanagement of their facilities, either through a man-made disaster or a natural disaster, it's China," he said. "It's probably the most unsafe program in the world."

Close coordination between the United States and South Korea also is necessary in getting North Korea back to the negotiating table. With the passage in Congress of a free-trade agreement between the United States and South Korea this week, the two countries are enjoying some of the closest ties they have had.

Going forward, people who have participated in discussions with North Korea say a combination of multilateral talks along with a bilateral track of discussions will be necessary to move North Korea forward.

But from the U.S. perspective, "having the six-party stamp on it, the multilateral buy-in from the other countries" will be important to ensure compliance with whatever agreement is reached, Cha said.

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Filed under: Diplomacy • North Korea
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. King Nutmost the Rash

    More talks with NK. Why? These people have been playing the west in general and the US in particular, like a violin. I suggest we (the West) have absolutely nothing to do with them,;no bribes of food, no contact at all. Let China deal with them. Just make sure that NK knows in no uncertain terms that if the attack anyone they will be flattened. No invasion: Just flattened.

    October 17, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  2. rightospeak

    What nonsense ,what warmongering. We created North Korea after losing a war with them . China and Russia next to it are not worried about it , but we are. What are we doing in South Korea, if we are borrowing money from China-the whole thing sounds like a bad joke, except that we are bankrupt.

    October 17, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  3. jackinbox

    Send in B2, it is the only thing that can lead to a positive outcome. The talk has become an enterprise of extortion. The US is like a old fart, paying for things that belong to him. Smash them now then pay the Chinese to do the re-construction. Everyone gets what they want and derserve. The sooner the better.

    No GIs need to be on the ground, just smash them into bits, surgical carpet bombing on a scale the would has never seen. That is what we do best. People will re-build. No need for GIs, who could not build a darn thing at home, to teach them.

    October 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  4. Rickey from San fran

    What is your guy's opinion on possible war with korth Korea?

    October 16, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  5. Huckster55

    The longer North Korea can stall talks the further along they will be to having a large stockpile of nuclear weapons. It is that simple. The US and Obama beed to take their heads out of the sand and wake up before it is too late. The exact same applies to Iran and their ambitions.

    October 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Reply
    • Justin

      Lets hope they dont cut the military moneys in this case... Everything is about to hit the fan we are weak and need a true leader and a bigger force we are at major risks right now I hope ppl wake up and stand up and close our border to the south not in a racist manor but for the case of terror attackers jumping accross there is to much at stake we are to weak and let take a stand

      October 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  6. Adan

    If choice of words define history's turning points, then labeling DPRK as part of the "AXIS OF EVIL" was the worst choice of language and will probably echo in the pages of history long into the future as the single damaging use of a phrase by an American politician.

    North Korea is now a firm thorn to U.S power. It has nuclear technology and can transfer the knowledge to other U.S hostile nations. It is the tip of the ice crack that can shear off an iceberg. With the U.N non-sanctioned invasion of Iraq, U.S found itself trapped both militarily and financially, and by 2006 with a simple strategic calculation, DPRK announced its first nuclear test. THIS IS PROBABLY THE BIGGEST BLUNDER OF GOP/BUSH/CHENEY ADMINISTRATION....Iraq allowed both Iran and DPRK to become bold and confident. In simple terms; The Republicans lived to their legendary stupidity, a party that afteral relies on the votes of the lowest IQ portion of the American population: They F***** UP!!

    October 15, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  7. Adan

    If choice of words define history's turning points, then labeling DPRK part of the "AXIS OF EVIL" was the worst choice of language and will probably echo in the pages of history long into the future, as the single damaging use of a phrase by America politician.

    North Korea is now a firm thorn to U.S power. It has nuclear technology and can transfer the knowledge to other U.S hostile nations. It is the tip of the ice crack that can shear off an iceberg. With the U.N non-sanctioned invasion of Iraq, U.S found itself trapped both militarily and financially and by 2006, with simple strategic calculation DPRK announced its first nuclear test. THIS IS PROBABLY IS THE BIGGEST BLUNDER OF GOP/BUSH/CHENEY ADMINISTRATION....Iraq allowed both Iran and DPRK to become bold and confident. In simple terms; The Republicans lived to their legendary stupidity, a party that afteral relies on the votes of the lowest IQ portion of the population: The F***** UP!!

    October 15, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  8. StanCalif

    The only "talks" needed are between China and No. Korea (maybe with Russia attending). No. Korea is the product of old China and the old Soviet Union. Today, China and Russia are economically successful having discovered the capitalist system. Both employed capitalist ideals while keeping democracy at bay! For some unknown reason, these two seem to want to preserve this last example of who they once were! Strange. It's like a museum of history!
    Western nations, especially the USA, can't even begin to understand the mindset of No. Korea, but China and Russia know exactly, after all this is who they once were. China and Russia could easily "fix" No. Korea, no other countries need to be involved at all!

    October 15, 2011 at 7:37 am | Reply
  9. Brian from Chicago

    Could we ask the people of Seoul to quietly step 30 miles to the south? This would take about a day.

    October 14, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply

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