The United States opens its first round of talks with North Korea under its new leader Kim Jong-un later this week in Beijing, following sessions in July in New York and October in Geneva. It is hard to find analysts these days who think that North Korea’s denuclearization is possible, yet the objective of these talks is to bring North Korea back to the denuclearization path that it had accepted as a signatory to the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of Six Party Talks. In the ensuing six years, however, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, which have been now been lauded as the primary accomplishments of the late Kim Jong-il, whose 70th birthday was commemorated last week in Pyongyang with the unveiling of a new Kim Jong-il statue and a military parade.
Is it really possible to imagine that diplomatic talks can yield even a modest result so soon after Kim Jong-il’s death? North Korea’s decision to reach out to the United States to continue dialogue suggests a need on North Korea’s part to pursue talks that were postponed as a result of Kim Jong-il’s death. Media reports indicated that if North Korea agreed to a set of pre-steps, including a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear tests, stabilization of inter-Korean relations, and an IAEA monitored shutdown of the uranium enrichment facilities that North Korea has shown Dr. Siegfried Hecker during his November 2010 visit to Yongbyun, that the United States would provide nutritional assistance in response to the dire food needs of North Korean infants and nursing mothers. These modest steps would return the United States and North Korea roughly to the status quo ante as it had existed in December of 2008, at the time of the last round of Six Party Talks.
The KCNA reported a January 11 statement from the DPRK foreign ministry spokesman under the title “DPRK Will Follow U.S. Moves.” The spokesman stated that the United States had proposed in prior rounds of bilateral talks “to take confidence-building steps such as suspension of sanctions as well as food aid in case the DPRK takes similar steps such as temporary suspension of uranium enrichment.” The North also claimed that “the United States has drastically changed the amount and items of provision contrary to the originally promised food aid of more than 300,000 tons,” a reference to the balance of promised assistance that the United States was unable to deliver following North Korea’s March 2009 decision to end the food aid program and kick U.S. NGO and WFP monitors out of the country.
Following a visit to North Korea by a U.S. food aid assessment team led by Ambassador Robert King in May 2011, South Korea media reported that that the United States in December 2011 agreed to provide up to 240,000 tons in “nutritional assistance.” This aid would consist of biscuits and vitamins, rather than rice or other grain that could be diverted from the targeted population-in-need in North Korea. If the gap between the U.S. and DPRK of under 100,000 tons of food assistance can be closed and North Korea allows a monitored shutdown of its Yongbyun-based uranium enrichment facilities, these steps would enable a return to Six Party Talks.
These modest steps would only bring the United States and DPRK back to the starting line for resumption of the Six Party process. That process envisions the eventual abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear program in return for normalization of North Korea’s political situation along with a level of international legitimation that Kim Jong-un and his colleagues so sorely lack.
Regardless of whether the talks between Ambassador Glyn Davies and Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan this week in Beijing will close the gap, they will provide an opportunity for the United States to directly evaluate any changes in the pattern of behavior and decision-making by North Korea’s leadership following Kim Jong-il’s death as well as to directly communicate to the leadership U.S. expectations for the U.S. relationship with North Korea under its new leadership. Even a modest agreement would buy time for North Korea to focus on internal affairs as Kim Jong-un attempts to consolidate his leadership in advance of the newly-announced WPK Party Conference to be held in Pyongyang on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.