In Bid to Restart Talks, N. Korea Offers to Halt Nuke Tests, but Not Rocket Launches

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 16, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — North Korean of­fi­cials re­cently told a U.S. del­eg­a­tion they would cease nuc­le­ar and mis­sile tests if the United States re­turns to ne­go­ti­ations, though they would not rule out fir­ing more long-range rock­ets, a former State De­part­ment of­fi­cial told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

Joel Wit and oth­er former U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials met in late Septem­ber with North Korean Vice For­eign Min­is­ter Ri Yong Ho for so-called Track 1.5 talks. At the in­form­al Ber­lin meet­ing — one of sev­er­al Ri has had in re­cent weeks with one­time U.S. of­fi­cials in Beijing, Ber­lin and Lon­don — they heard Py­ongy­ang’s pro­pos­al for re­in­vig­or­at­ing aid-for-de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion ne­go­ti­ations with the United States, South Korea, Ja­pan, China and Rus­sia.

“What they’ve been do­ing in these meet­ings is put­ting some more meat on the bones on what their po­s­i­tion is in terms of re­start­ing dia­logue,” said Wit, who in the 1990s led the State De­part­ment’s ef­forts to im­ple­ment the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Frame­work. “They’ve laid it out in a fairly de­tailed way and they’ve also laid out what their po­s­i­tion would be in a dia­logue.”

Py­ongy­ang has pub­licly stated it will not ac­cept any pre­con­di­tions to re­turn­ing to the six-na­tion nuc­le­ar talks. But state­ments made by its rep­res­ent­at­ives in the Track 1.5 talks sug­gest that after any form­al ne­go­ti­ations ac­tu­ally start “they’d be will­ing to take con­fid­ence-build­ing meas­ures” such as im­ple­ment­ing a morator­i­um on un­der­ground nuc­le­ar test­ing and test-launch­ing stra­tegic bal­list­ic mis­siles, Wit said in an in­ter­view. Crit­ic­ally, though, the North has not offered to ab­stain from fur­ther long-range rock­et launches.

Wit, a U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute vis­it­ing schol­ar who ed­its the ex­pert web­site 38 North, said the North Koreans know the United States wants any morator­i­um to in­clude rock­et launches. “They un­der­stand that’s a prob­lem from our per­spect­ive,” he said.

A Feb­ru­ary 2012 morator­i­um deal between Py­ongy­ang and Wash­ing­ton col­lapsed be­fore it could be im­ple­men­ted when North Korea, ig­nor­ing U.S. de­mands, launched a long-range rock­et it claimed was for peace­ful space re­search. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and many oth­er gov­ern­ments con­demned the launch as a cov­er for a long-range bal­list­ic mis­sile test.

The ex­per­i­ence made Wash­ing­ton even more leery than it was be­fore of sit­ting down to talks with North Korea ab­sent pri­or demon­stra­tions of a com­mit­ment to ir­re­vers­ible de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion.

Asked to re­spond to Py­ongy­ang’s latest morator­i­um pro­pos­al, State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Mar­ie Harf said: “The onus is, of course, on North Korea to take mean­ing­ful steps to­wards liv­ing up to” its pre­vi­ously agreed-to de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion prom­ises.

“I’m not go­ing to out­line spe­cific­ally what that might look like, but they com­mit­ted to abandon­ing their en­tire pro­gram and we hope that there would be some move­ment in that dir­ec­tion,” she said at an Oct. 10 press brief­ing.

Wit said Obama of­fi­cials “listened po­litely, which isn’t al­ways the case,” when they were briefed about the re­cent Track 1.5 talks with the North.

This past sum­mer, Wit told a Wash­ing­ton audi­ence if the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion does not ne­go­ti­ate with North Korea now, it es­sen­tially is ta­citly ac­qui­es­cing to a fu­ture where the coun­try has a cred­ible nuc­le­ar weapon.

“What we should be do­ing is to be seek­ing to re­sume talks and then [the North Koreans] should of course take con­fid­ence-build­ing meas­ures earli­er on,” Wit told GSN on Oct. 10.

Evans Revere, who served as prin­cip­al deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State for East Asi­an and Pa­cific af­fairs in the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, said he per­ceives a “will­ing­ness” by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to reen­gage with North Korea, provided it es­sen­tially re­com­mits it­self to de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion prom­ises made in the six-na­tion frame­work in Septem­ber 2005.

“There is no an­ti­pathy to­ward en­ga­ging and dis­cuss­ing with North Korea but the con­ver­sa­tion needs to cen­ter around North Korea’s ful­fill­ment of the ob­lig­a­tions that it has already un­der­taken,” Revere told GSN in a Septem­ber in­ter­view after he re­turned from Track 1.5 talks hos­ted by the Chinese For­eign Min­istry in Beijing.

Joseph De­Trani, a North Korea ex­pert who pre­vi­ously headed the Na­tion­al Counter Pro­lif­er­a­tion Cen­ter in the Of­fice of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence, be­lieves the United States “should be real­ist­ic” and re­cog­nize it needs either to ne­go­ti­ate with Kim Jong Un’s re­gime or watch its nuc­le­ar weapons work con­tin­ue to ad­vance.

De­Trani re­portedly en­gaged in in­form­al talks in early Oc­to­ber with North Korea’s Ri in Lon­don. At an Oct. 11 con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, he said the United States and oth­ers must stop be­liev­ing it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore the Kim dyn­asty im­plodes, leav­ing its nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram to quickly be dis­mantled.

“We’ve been drink­ing the Kool-Aid for 20 years,” De­Trani said. “We need en­gage­ment” with the North Korean re­gime.

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