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North Korean "Never-Never" Land: Prospects for Getting Diplomacy Back on Track

Within hours following a April 13, 2009, UNSC presidential statement condemning North Korea's missile launch, the DPRK foreign ministry responded by stating that "six-party talks have lost the meaning of their existence never to recover" and that the "DPRK will never participate in such six-party talks nor will it be bound any longer to any agreement of the talks."

In a four-part analytical series by Kim Ji-young published on April 20-25 in Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korean publication based in Japan that is often used by the North Koreans to explain their official positions, the North Korean author reveals a clear willingness to return to negotiations with the United States. However, the articles do not fully address the core concern of outside observers: whether North Korea will really put its nuclear program on the table once diplomatic talks have resumed.

The first article ties the launch of the Kwangmyongsong-2 rocket to North Korea's own objective of achieving a "powerful state" by 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth and to a "fireworks soiree" reportedly organized by reported heir apparent Kim Jeong-un on the eve of Kim Il Sung's birthday. The article characterizes the UNSC statement as an act that opposes North Korea's efforts to reach its domestic goal.

The second article reviews recent events in the six party talks, casting Japan as a "spoiler of the talks" by "holding actions back." Although the author states that it is impossible for the six party talks to resume, "bilateral talks and multilateral negotiations with the DPRK may be held in the future." The author shows openness to participation in a "new diplomatic approach" that might "restore the process of denuclearization through the revival of the "19 September [Joint Statement] spirit."

The third article asserts that the six party format did not contribute to the "relaxation of military tension on the Korean peninsula," notes that the United States did not respond to a North Korean proposal last year to hold "DPRK-US military talks with the attendance of UN representatives," and references a January DPRK Foreign Ministry statement that "our nuclear-possession status will not change one bit as long as the United States' nuclear threat remains." The article stressed that the DPRK's foreign policy objective was to "realize denuclearization and defend peace and security in Northeast Asia and the world at large."

The fourth article states that "the 'presidential statement' adopted by the UN Security Council, which wrecked the six-party talks, can serve as a starting point of new diplomacy." The author argues that a "standoff situation has emerged, making it necessary to agree on agenda items to discuss in new diplomatic negotiations. Basic issues can be discussed among the relevant countries," and further suggests that peace on the Korean peninsula should be the main focus, concluding with an appeal to concerned parties to return to the negotiating table: "Presuming major powers will try to guarantee their own national interests to the maximum in the discussion of the security [issue] of the Korean peninsula, they should set forth negotiations with the DPRK as a premise to fulfill whatever goals they have in mind."

Having tipped over the card table in a six-party game where they perceived the deck was stacked against them, the Chosun Sinbo articles suggest that the North Koreans are eager to get back to the game--as long as it is structured in such a way that they can continue to win. The North Koreans apparently deem a bilateral game with the United States or even a four-party game initially focused on peace negotiations (a format that would include North and South Korea, China, and the United States as parties involved in the negotiation of the Korean armistice) as providing better early returns than a continuation of the denuclearization-focused six party talks, in which the North Koreans were sure to pocket their winnings (removal from the terrorism list and Trading With the Enemy Act) before leaving the table. The North Koreans also know well that Japan's exclusion from the process would exacerbate tensions in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Notably, the North Koreans have not lost their appetite to continue playing this game.

While in Beijing last week, Ambassador Bosworth stated that "the United States reiterates its desire to engage both multilaterally and bilaterally with North Korea," a formulation that appears to coincide with Chosun Sinbo's call for renewed negotiations.

Although there may be a need to consider other forms of dialogue in the near-term as a vehicle for jump-starting the diplomatic process, the North Koreans will need to show a credible commitment to denuclearization, having upended the six party process and having claimed that denuclearization and normalization are separate matters for consideration. Without resumption of credible North Korean actions toward denuclearization, it would be a mistake for the other parties to allow North Korea to stay in "never-never land" and walk away completely from the six party talks, the only venue where North Korea is publicly committed to the principle of denuclearization.

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