‘Reversible Steps’ Could Restart North Korea Nuclear Talks: U.S. Envoy

U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Glyn Davies talks to the press in Tokyo in November. The senior diplomat in public remarks on Tuesday painted a gloomy picture of the current state of the nuclear impasse with Pyongyang.
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Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
May 14, 2014, 10:45 a.m.

A U.S. en­voy on Tues­day sug­ges­ted Wash­ing­ton could ac­cept “re­vers­ible steps” from North Korea on de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion in or­der to jump-start frozen ne­go­ti­ations.

“What they do, quite frankly, in the ini­tial stages would be per­fectly re­vers­ible steps that they would take, de­clar­at­ory steps,” said Glyn Dav­ies, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spe­cial en­voy for North Korea policy. He em­phas­ized, however, that Py­ongy­ang could only re­turn to the long-para­lyzed six-party pro­cess if it ac­cep­ted the “fun­da­ment­al premise” that the ne­go­ti­ations were fo­cused on the per­man­ent shut­ter­ing of its nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram.

Dav­ies was re­spond­ing to a re­port­er’s ques­tion on wheth­er the United States was still de­mand­ing from Py­ongy­ang con­crete proof of its com­mit­ment to ir­re­vers­ible de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion as a pre­con­di­tion to re­turn­ing to the ne­go­ti­ations, which also in­volve China, Ja­pan, Rus­sia and South Korea.

“Dav­ies’ an­swer sug­gests that if the six-party talks were to be­gin, the first ac­tions the U.S. and its part­ners would de­mand would be aimed at lim­its that curb the D.P.R.K.’s nuc­le­ar and mis­sile po­ten­tial,” said Daryl Kim­ball, Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­ation ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, in an email.

Po­ten­tial re­vers­ible steps that the North could take to gain the con­fid­ence of oth­er coun­tries could in­clude a pledge to sus­pend nuc­le­ar and mis­sile test­ing. A still­born U.S-North Korea agree­ment reached on Leap Day 2012 in­volved such a prom­ise of a test­ing morator­i­um; Py­ongy­ang was seen to quickly break faith with Wash­ing­ton when it weeks later un­suc­cess­fully at­temp­ted to send a rock­et in­to space.

Speak­ing dur­ing a Tues­day even­ing pan­el dis­cus­sion at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton, Dav­ies re­jec­ted any chance of the Leap Day deal’s pre­cepts be­ing re­vived.

“We’d like to see them take con­crete ac­tions,” he said of North Korea. “The stuff they gotta do — they know what they have to do.”

The six-party talks format fo­cuses on re­ward­ing North Korea for its phased de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion with timed in­fu­sions of eco­nom­ic as­sist­ance and se­cur­ity agree­ments; the last round of ne­go­ti­ations took place in late 2008. Since that time, Py­ongy­ang has det­on­ated mul­tiple atom­ic devices, car­ried out a num­ber of ap­par­ent long-range bal­list­ic mis­sile tests, re­vealed a urani­um en­rich­ment ca­pa­city and re­star­ted a moth­balled plutoni­um-pro­duc­tion re­act­or. Most re­cently, the world has been wait­ing to see if the North will make good on its re­peated threats of con­duct­ing a fourth nuc­le­ar test.

Dav­ies painted an over­all dim pic­ture of the cur­rent state of the nuc­le­ar im­passe with the North: “The fact that they’re not in­ter­ested in resolv­ing the cases of Amer­ic­ans who have been im­prisoned in North Korea tells you something about their cur­rent in­terest in go­ing back to mul­ti­lat­er­al dip­lomacy.”

Since Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011, the North Korean re­gime has pub­lished a num­ber of state­ments that un­der­line how cent­ral nuc­le­ar weapons are to the re­gime’s sense of iden­tity.

“This new lead­er has done us a fa­vor, in a back-handed fash­ion, of mak­ing it quite clear that he has no in­ten­tion of mean­ing­fully de­nuc­lear­iz­ing, and that presents a prob­lem. But it also is a cla­ri­fy­ing mo­ment,” said Dav­ies, who formerly served as U.S. am­bas­sad­or to the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency.

Vic­tor Cha, who served as spe­cial en­voy to North Korea dur­ing the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, said he did not be­lieve there was any­thing left of the six-party talks to sal­vage.

“The last meet­ing was in 2008. It’s been six years. If you don’t do something for six years, you prob­ably don’t do it any­more,” said Cha, who is a seni­or ad­viser to the CSIS think tank and par­ti­cip­ated in Tues­day’s pan­el.

Kim­ball, who at­ten­ded the event, warned that if Wash­ing­ton waits too long for the North to “re­com­mit to the goals” of a 2005 six-party talks joint state­ment on de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion, Py­ongy­ang’s lead­ers could ex­pand their fis­sile ma­ter­i­al stock­pile and fur­ther im­prove their mis­sile and nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies.

“It is past time to make the ne­ces­sary ad­just­ments to the strategy of the United States and its part­ners to lim­it [the North’s] cap­ab­il­it­ies be­fore they be­come even more dan­ger­ous to the re­gion,” he said.

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