[Viewpoint] Onto ‘low-intensity engagement’

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[Viewpoint] Onto ‘low-intensity engagement’

The North Korean first vice foreign minister, Kim Gye-kwan, is in New York for an academic meeting at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and for meetings on the side with U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth.

This is the second in a three-phase process for resuming the six-party talks agreed upon by the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. The first phase was initiated when chief South Korean nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac met North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Yong-ho last week. Phase three is supposed to be the resumption of six-party talks.

Will this U.S.-North Korean discussion in New York clear the way for phase three? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the New York meeting as “exploratory,” insisting that the United States is “open to talks with North Korea, but we do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table.” Clinton emphasized that the purpose of the talks is to see whether “North Korea is prepared to affirm its obligations under international and six-party talk commitments, as well as take concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization.”

Given North Korean demands for simultaneous denuclearization by the other parties and pledges to become a full nuclear weapons state by 2012 - not to mention two nuclear weapons tests and provocative revelations about clandestine uranium enrichment - it appears highly unlikely that the North will affirm its denuclearization obligations in any credible way. The Obama administration knows this, but is really interested in engagement for different a reason: to dissuade North Korea from engaging in provocative nuclear or missile tests. Senator John Kerry probably echoed the administration’s thinking when he warned recently that “given North Korea’s recent irresponsible conduct, staying in a diplomatic holding pattern invites a dangerous situation to get even worse.”

Given this context, I see three possible scenarios for U.S.-North Korea engagement going forward.

The first scenario is that the Kim-Bosworth talks this week yield specific language from North Korea reaffirming a commitment to the September 2005 six-party joint agreement on denuclearization. This would open the way for an early resumption of the six-party talks.

However, I see this as the least likely scenario since the North would have to reverse its post-2005 demands that there be simultaneous denuclearization and that Pyongyang be treated as a de facto nuclear weapons state. Even if the North did agree to this verbal concession, it is not clear how the six-party talks would be organized in light of North Korean nuclear tests and uranium enrichment revelations - in other words, massive cheating since the talks were last held.

The second scenario also seems unlikely. That would be for Pyongyang to declare the initial meetings in New York unsatisfactory, to attack The U.S.’ so-called hostile policy, and to use that as an excuse to then engage in further provocations. This would make sense if Chinese pressure was behind the North’s decision to engage the U.S. and if Pyongyang were looking for an excuse to cast the blame back at Washington.

It could also be the reaction if Pyongyang suddenly determined from the New York talks that the United States had no intention of making concessions in exchange for a resumption of the six-party talks. However, Pyongyang has come this far for a reason and probably already understands the U.S.’ bottom line.

The most likely scenario therefore is a drawn out, undramatic and nonconclusive series of interactions between Washington and Pyongyang. This would suit the Obama administration’s requirement of engaging Pyongyang enough to hopefully discourage further provocations without making concessions that appear to reward the North for previous cheating or open the president to charges inside the United States that he is weak. It may also suit Pyongyang’s efforts to secure some food aid and appease China for the near-term.

However, this shift from “strategic patience” to low-intensity engagement by the U.S. probably won’t be sustainable.

Eventually, Pyongyang will conclude that it has received all the limited aid it can get and will be ready to move on to the next stage of its nuclear and missile testing schedule. That could very well be in 2012, when the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth will be celebrated.

While there are few reasons to be optimistic about this new stage of engagement, however, it’s probably worth a try. The trick will be to convince Pyongyang that the U.S. is not so afraid of provocations.

We should also be clear that implementation of UN Security Council sanctions and enhanced deterrence measures taken in the wake of the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeongpyong Island will be no less critical just because we have some dialogue.

*The writer is the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

By Michael Green
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