US President Barack Obama will use his trademark direct diplomacy next week on a problem which plagued his predecessors for two decades -- North Korea’s dogged drive for nuclear weaponry.
Special envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth, set to arrive Tuesday in Pyongyang, will try to persuade the isolated country to return to the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks it angrily quit in April.
The trip will mark the first direct talks between the Obama administration and the hardline communist regime. But hopes of a breakthrough are low, given the North’s missile and nuclear tests earlier this year and the US preoccupation with other foreign policy challenges such as Afghanistan and Iran.
“I don’t expect much from the first visit to the North,” Bosworth himself was quoted as telling South Korea’s Yonhap news agency in London Thursday. Analysts agree. “At best, the North might announce its return to the nuclear talks, but I wouldn’t count on it,” said Peter Beck, a North Korea specialist at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific research centre. “Even if the North does announce a resumption of the nuclear talks, it really isn’t much of a Christmas present. We still won’t know if the North is serious about denuclearising,” Beck told AFP.
The talks grouping the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan began more than six years ago. Apparent breakthroughs have alternated with breakdowns as each side accuses the other of bad faith. In September 2005 the North agreed to give up its nuclear programmes in exchange for major aid, diplomatic ties with Washington and Tokyo and a permanent peace pact on the peninsula.
But talks broke down as Washington tightened financial sanctions on Pyongyang, which staged its first nuclear test the following year. After a new deal in 2007 the North shut down the plants which produced weapons-grade plutonium. In April this year, angry at international condemnation of its long-range rocket launch, it declared the six-party process “dead” and began restoring the plants.
In May the North staged a second atomic weapons test, following up with a volley of missile tests before putting out peace feelers in late summer. In the first hint of compromise, North Korea told visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in October it is ready to return to six-party talks -- if bilateral discussions with the United States prove satisfactory.
The North says it must keep its nuclear arsenal because of US “hostility” and maintains that a deal with Washington is key to ending the nuclear impasse.
The US is wary of efforts to split the negotiating partners. “The North is seeking bilateral talks with the US but our goal is to reactivate the multilateral talks,” Yonhap quoted Bosworth as saying. “The United States will never engage in sweeping US-North Korea bilateral talks, ignoring the principle of multilateral talks.”
The US diplomat is expected to hold talks with first vice foreign minister Kang Sok-Joo but a senior Seoul official has said he is unlikely to meet leader Kim Jong-Il. Bosworth returns Thursday to Seoul and will also travel to Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow to brief them on his trip.
“There will be no dramatic progress. This is just the start of a long process,” said Kim Yong-Hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. "The US also does not expect much at the first round of bilateral talks as it is tied up with Afghanistan and Iran. However, we can expect a gradual improvement in relations if the US is willing to accept North Korea’s demands such as a peace pact between the two countries,” Kim told AFP.
Beck forecast a “long slog”. He called on Washington to make “a detailed, time-limited offer to the North” of what it can expect in return for full denuclearisation. “We should be sceptical about the North’s intentions, but we won’t know for sure until we make them an offer they can’t refuse.”