Only one week after proposing and then pulling the plug on inter-Korean dialogue over protocol differences, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)’s National Defense Commission on June 16 issued a surprise proposal for “high-level” U.S.-DPRK talks on easing of military tensions, establishment of a peace regime, and “various other issues both parties want to address, including the building of a nuclear-free world proposed by the United States.”
A White House statement in response to the offer emphasized the necessity of North Korea taking actions to show its commitment to denuclearization before the United States would accept talks. It stated that such actions would involve North Korea “living up to its obligations to the world, including compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions, and ultimately result in denuclearization.” In other words, without accompanying actions that show a North Korean willingness to enter “authentic” negotiations, the Obama administration assesses North Korea’s proposal as a non-starter.
While it is certainly preferable for North Korea to pursue diplomatic rather than missile or nuclear tests, all of North Korea’s neighbors by now are well aware of North Korea’s history of diplomatic initiatives as just another tool through which North Korea has sought to consolidate gains following periods in which North Korean brinkmanship has driven political tensions to high levels. To simply accept North Korea’s dialogue proposal and come back to the table as though nothing has changed since the last six party talks were held in 2008—or since North Korea’s dramatic reversal only two weeks after concluding the 2012 Leap Day understanding—would imply acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
South Korean media report that Xi Jinping flatly opposed a proposal from North Korea’s top military official Choe Ryong-hae during his visit to Beijing in late May that China accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. One of the major accomplishments of the Xi-Obama summit talks at the Sunnylands estate was the securing of a public pledge from China’s top leader that China will not accept a nuclear North Korea, while China continues to emphasize that the standoff be resolved peacefully through dialogue.
The timing of North Korea’s proposal to resume direct talks with the United States appears primarily designed to discern fissures in the converging positions of the United States, China, and South Korea on North Korea’s denuclearization. The North Korean proposal tests Sino-U.S. relations since the United States has conveyed that North Korea must take concrete actions to show its sincerity as a precondition for the resumption of nuclear talks while China has emphasized the importance of returning to dialogue even while affirming it will not accept a nuclear North Korea. It also tests the U.S.-ROK alliance by tempting the United States to bypass resumption of inter-Korean dialogue only a week after the North refused participation in proposed talks with Seoul in favor of U.S.-DPRK negotiations that would marginalize South Korea.
Regardless of the intention behind North Korea’s proposal, the National Defense Commission statement begins to lay the foundations for a North Korean climb down from its assertion of nuclear status through its statement that “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the behest of our leader and our general and the policy task that must be carried out by our party, state, and millions of soldiers and people without fail.” Since this statement stands at odds with North Korea’s inclusion of its nuclear status in the preamble of its constitution and its acknowledgment of nuclear weapons development as one of Kim Jong-il’s main contributions, sincerity of the statement will remain suspect absent accompanying concrete actions reinforcing the statement’s credibility.
Although North Korea’s statement provides Pyongyang’s first public recognition of the need for an exit strategy from its current situation, it is cloaked in defiance and makes an odd call on the United States to drop preconditions for talks while adding preconditions of its own. The preamble to North Korea’s offer of “high-level” dialogue demands that the United States stop “all forms of provocation, including sanctions.” In addition, the National Defense Commission statement claims that “our legitimate status as a nuclear weapons state will be maintained without the least wavering, regardless of whether others recognize it or not, until the denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula is realized and nuclear threats from outside are put to an end completely.” In other words, North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons program when hell freezes over, but let’s talk about it.