The state of play in Washington on North Korea

Jul. 25, 2017, 03:34 PM.

Last week, Moon Jae-in’s government made its first formal overture to North Korea, proposing military discussions on ceasing hostile actions and Red Cross talks on resuming reunions of divided families. But the proposals were quickly shot down by the White House, where presidential spokesman Sean Spicer said the atmosphere for such talks was “far away.” The New York Times leapt on the exchange, calling the disagreement the “first visible split” between Moon and the Trump administration.

But it’s not clear how deep this rift really is, or if the press was exaggerating it. After all, during Moon’s summit with Trump last month, the two governments signed a joint communique that strongly endorsed Moon’s desire to resolve North-South conflicts through bilateral dialogue and negotiation. Moon himself has played down any differences with Trump, explaining on July 19th to Korean lawmakers that the initial phase of any talks will focus on humanitarian issues. “Denuclearization talks require the right conditions,” he added, through a spokesman.

Ironically, reports of a US-ROK dispute over North Korea surfaced as the Trump administration itself is talking to Pyongyang. “The Trump administration has been negotiating with the North Koreans – that’s a fact, not a myth,” Leon V. Sigal, a former State Department official, told Newstapa in an interview. Sigal is part of a team of former US officials and experts who meet regularly with North Korean government officials for discussions that are called “Track 2 dialogues.”

The administration’s talks with North Korea came to light in June, shortly before the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student held by Pyongyang for 17 months. According to a story published on June 18 by the Wall Street Journal, US diplomats have been holding secret talks in Pyongyang and Europe with North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, Madame Choi Sun Hee, for “more than a year” as part of the “Track 2” process. Then, after President Trump’s inauguration in January, “the official and nonofficial American contacts with the North Koreans started to merge.”

In May, Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, met Choi in Oslo at a meeting organized by US participants in the “Track 2” process. Their purpose was to discuss the plight of four Americans in prison in North Korea. But after leaving Norway, Choi, whose title is director-general of the North American affairs bureau of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that her government would be willing to meet US officials for talks on the nuclear issue “if the conditions are set,” the Journal said.

In early June, as part of this process, Yun met in New York with Pyongyang’s ambassador to the UN. It was here that he was informed that Warmbier, who was being considered for release, was in a coma. Yun, on instructions from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then flew to Pyongyang to bring him back. Since his death a few days later, no new talks have been scheduled as the Trump administration considers its options. “The question is, is this a hiatus or is Trump rethinking the process?” asked Sigal.

Judging by the administration’s latest statements, the road to direct talks is still open. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, for example, has repeatedly said that the United States is not going to war with North Korea, and has instead emphasized negotiations. After Trump’s UN Ambassador Nicki Haley threatened the use of force against North Korea after its July 4 missile test, Mattis called reporters into his Pentagon office and flatly denied that the launch had brought the US and North Korea closer to war.

The Trump administration’s plans for the crisis, he said, are “purely diplomatically led.” That’s a good sign, said Sigal. “He’s undrawing the red line that everybody keeps trying to draw.”

This does not mean, however, that a consensus has been reached in Washington for negotiations to proceed – far from it. Hawkish elements from both the Democratic and Republican parties continue to call for a harder line against North Korea, and even for regime change. But there are indications that key elements of the national security state are beginning to see that there is no viable option but re-opening direct talks with North Korea over its nuclear and missile ambitions.

Some of the strongest voices for engagement have come from former senior leaders of US intelligence who came of age during the Cold War. One of them is James Clapper, the former US Director of National Intelligence who flew to Pyongyang in 2014 to retrieve a US prisoner. Several times over the last month, he has proposed that the United States and North Korea open “interest sections” in each other’s capitals. This is similar to the US arrangement with Cuba before President Obama normalized relations in 2015.

Clapper, who was a military intelligence officer in Korea during the 1980s, has also proposed that North Korea “cap” its missile tests “in return for dialogue and a peace treaty.” In a recent interview on CNN, he said, “The only option is diplomacy. The best hope is to engage with them.” In his recent speech in Seoul about his 2014 visit to Pyongyang, he spoke almost wistfully about learning about the pain of national division from the senior North Korean intelligence officer who rode with him in his car.

Another advocate for a negotiated peace is Robert Gates, the former Secretary for Defense who spent nearly 27 years at the CIA, where he was the director from 1991 to 1993. He recently unveiled a sweeping proposal that would allow North Korea to keep some of its nuclear weapons while agreeing to hard limits on his arsenal of missiles. Under his plan, which he outlined in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on July 10, the US would “forswear a policy of regime change” as it did with Castro after the 1962 missile crisis, sign a peace treaty with Kim Jong Un and consider “some changes” in the structure of US military forces in South Korea.

But Gates’ plan has a fatal flaw: it would be brokered entirely through China. Under Gates’ proposal, Beijing would be required to bring North Korea to the talks and convince its government to accept invasive inspections of its weapons facilities to ensure compliance with the agreement. The US would tell China, “If that is not an outcome you can accept, we are going to take steps you hate,” Gates told the Journal.

This “let China do it” mentality is very strong in Washington at the moment. Its most prominent proponent is Victor Cha, the director of Korea programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was the deputy head of the US delegation to the six-party talks with North Korea in the Bush administration.

“It’s not enough to ask China to pressure Pyongyang to set up a U.S.-North Korea negotiation,” Cha wrote recently in the Washington Post with Jake Sullivan, the former director of policy planning for the Obama administration. “China has to be a central part of the negotiation, too.” They argued that “China, rather than the United States, should be paying for North Korea to halt and roll back its nuclear and missile programs.”

While this view is heartily endorsed in the media, many Korea specialists scoff at the idea that North Korea would let China push it around like that.

“Pyongyang will perceive any effort to get them to denuclearize as another overly intrusive move and lacking respect for North Korean sovereignty,” said James F. Person, a historian who has specialized in North Korea’s diplomacy with China and the former Soviet Union. “We can’t afford to outsource our policy to China because that’s asking North Korea to do what they most resent,” he said. “Ultimately, we will have to talk to the North.” Person spoke at a July 10 press briefing organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a US government think tank in Washington.

This pragmatic view has emerged in recent months among former high-ranking officials, such as William Perry, who negotiated with North Korea on its missile program as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. On the eve of President Moon’s visit to Washington in June, Perry was one of several retired senior officials who signed a letter to Trump urging him to begin negotiations without any preconditions with the North. This week, in an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, Perry explained his position.

“North Korea is not a crazy nation,” he told Sanders. “They are reckless, ruthless, but they are not crazy. They are open to logic and reason. Their main objective is to sustain their regime. If we can find a way of dealing with them that they can see gives them an opportunity to stay in the regime, we can get results.”

That was the primary message at the Wilson Center briefing, which was led by former California congresswoman Jane Harman. Last fall, she and Person floated a proposal for direct talks with North Korea in the Washington Post. “Only the United States - the supposed existential threat that justifies [North Korea’s] nuclear and ballistic missile programs - can fully address Pyongyang’s security concerns,” they wrote.  At the Wilson briefing, Person elaborated on their proposal.

He argued that the latest North Korean missile test was not a “game changer,” as many analysts have suggested, but is instead part of a “credible defensive rationale that goes back a very long time.” But now that they have the capability to launch ICBMs that can travel great distances, he said, North Korea will continue to test to give it the best possible leverage when the door opens for talks with Washington. “They want to make sure when they get to the negotiating table that they’ve pushed their program as far as they can,” he said.

So what would a direct US-North Korean negotiation look like? Most analysts believe it would have to begin with the North offering to freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the US and South Korea scaling down their annual military exercises. At the Wilson briefing, New York Times reporter David Sanger suggested that the US has a “window of opportunity” to offer such a deal soon because the main US-ROK exercises take place in the spring. “Between now and next spring, we wouldn’t lose much” if the US temporarily halted the exercises, he said.

Sigal, who has been talking to the North for over 20 years, cautioned that, for any deal to be accepted in Washington, a North Korean moratorium would have to go beyond the freeze of current programs as suggested by China and Russia. He said that would involve North Korea stopping its uranium enrichment and plutonium production as well as its nuclear and missile testing. That, in turn, would require the United States to pledge to end its “hostile policy,” as demanded for decades by North Korea.

“You’ve got to suspend the production of fissionable material too,” he told Newstapa. He said the US would “have to pay for that, not in money terms but in terms of moving away from the hostile policy. Some of that’s going to involve military exercises, some of that’s going to involve [lifting] sanctions, some of that’s going to involve starting the peace process. But that’s what’s got to be worked. That’s the first stage agreement that may be possible.”

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