This Week: Hope for North Korea Talks?

It’s election season in the United States, and the US delegation at talks in Geneva this week with North Korean officials will have one priority in mind – to avoid a provocation by nuclear-armed North Korea that could have unpredictable consequences for President Barack Obama.

US officials are damping down expectations of a breakthrough at the “exploratory” discussions today and tomorrow. The resumption of six party talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula seems unlikely.

The “exploratory” talks in Geneva today and tomorrow are a follow-up to an earlier meeting three months ago in New York, when President Barack Obama’s special representative Stephen Bosworth led the US delegation. This week’s talks however will be the last in this role for Bosworth, a seasoned Korea negotiator who has remained dean of the Fletcher School of diplomacy at Tufts University. The State Department announced that the US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Glyn Davies, is to succeed Bosworth and is accompanying him to Geneva.

However State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters last week that the switch marked “a change in personnel, not a change in policy.”

The US administration has pursued a policy of strategic patience with North Korea, which carried out a second nuclear test in May 2009 only months after Obama took office. US officials insist that Pyongyang must take steps to demonstrate it is serious about implementing commitments in a 2005 six-party agreement in which North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in return for aid and other incentives. The six-party talks involved the two Koreas, the US, Japan, Russia and China before they broke down in 2009 after North Korea withdrew.

The US is adamant that it does not want to hold “talks for talks’ sake.” But Toner said that the Geneva round has been scheduled as a result of the “good atmosphere” at the last talks in New York.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il, meanwhile, has reiterated that Pyongyang is ready to return to the six-party process “without any preconditions”.

According to media reports, the main hurdle at this week’s discussions is North Korea’s refusal to cease its industrial-scale uranium enrichment programme, revealed in 2010. Enriched uranium could provide an alternative route to a nuclear weapon for the impoverished and isolated country which has already enough plutonium for a dozen bombs according to Western estimates.

But the fundamental question remains whether North Korea has any intention of surrendering its nuclear programme which has served as an insurance policy against attack and guaranteed the regime’s survival. So, barring the unexpected, it looks as though the talks this week will serve to maintain a holding pattern at a time when North Korea is in transition as Kim Jong-Il’s son prepares to become leader, and as the United States enters an election year.


These are the personal views of the author.

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