Accessibility links

Can US, N. Korea Begin a Successful Dialogue?

North Korea responded with angry rhetoric following U.S. envoy James Kelly's visit to Pyongyang last week, but some analysts say there is still a possibility the two countries can begin a successful dialogue. Other analysts are not so optimistic.

After President Bush's special envoy James Kelly held talks in Pyongyang, North Korea's state media accused the diplomat of using pressure and arrogance to continue what it called the hostile U.S. policy toward the North.

Korea specialist Joel Wit says he does not read too much into North Korea's rhetoric. "It's the kind of public statement I would expect out of this meeting, because I think both sides just kind of put on their table what they find reprehensible about the other," he said."

Mr. Wit, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says both sides had low expectations of the meeting because of the chill in relations since the Bush administration came to office and Mr. Bush's designation of North Korea as part of an axis of evil. James Kelly's visit was the first high-level meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials in two years.

Mr. Wit says the U.S. envoy presented a list of demands and explained the policy changes North Korea needs to make for a dialogue to proceed.

"We want to see an end to their missile program. They've certainly extended the moratorium on tests of long-range missiles, but they have a very active missile program of weapons with shorter ranges that threaten Japan and certainly South Korea," he said. "And they also, of course, export to places where we don't want them to export missiles, such as the Middle East and South Asia."

Mr. Wit says the Bush administration also wants to send in international nuclear weapons inspectors, accelerating some aspects of the 1994 agreement that froze North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In addition, he says the United States wants to reduce the threat posed by North Korea's conventional forces stationed along the demilitarized zone bordering South Korea.

North Korea specialist Charles Armstrong says even though Pyongyang had low expectations before Mr. Kelly's visit, it was probably hoping for a more conciliatory tone from the U.S. envoy.

"The North Korean side has wanted to have talks for quite some time, and I think that they're very interested in continuing a dialogue," he said. "They want very much to have a change of the administration's attitude toward them. Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen. So, they're disappointed with the content of the talks, but I think they are pleased that talks are happening again and have some hope that perhaps the Bush administration line will soften."

Professor Armstrong is director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University in New York. He says the U.S. envoy's trip was planned and then postponed a few times over the last several months, and it finally came about at least in part because of the Japanese prime minister's trip to Pyongyang last month.

"North Korea now expects things to move ahead, and they have invested a lot in the renewing of a relationship with Japan and hopefully also with the United States," he said. "So, I think both sides are somewhat cautious, the North Korean side as well as the American side, but there is hope certainly on the North Korean side that this will lead to a significant breakthrough."

Professor Armstrong says despite North Korea's harsh public rhetoric, Pyongyang could be working on some concessions quietly, behind the scenes. He says that would be consistent with its past behavior, in particular the North's surprise apology for past abductions of Japanese citizens announced during Prime Minister Koizumi's recent visit.

Professor Armstrong says that is part of North Korea's new efforts at openness and accommodation with the outside world.

Joel Wit is skeptical that the United States and North Korea are making any progress in secret talks. He says working level talks that occasionally occur at the United Nations have not been productive.

"The most you could hope that both sides have left open the possibility for further meetings in the future. But beyond that I wouldn't hope for much at all," he said. "And there's also the possibility...that behind the scenes there are actually negative things happening."

Other observers point out that Mr. Kelly did not offer Pyongyang a so-called roadmap or blueprint of how negotiations could proceed - including topics such as possible locations, timetables, or agenda items. Without such a roadmap, those analysts say, it would be difficult to open any sustained talks with North Korea. And they add that any negotiations with Pyongyang would likely be further delayed if the United States gets into a war preparation mode to resolve the conflict with Iraq.