Ambassador Stephen Bosworth was typically cryptic in his remarks after concluding two days of meetings last week with North Korean counterparts.
Bosworth stated that the bilateral talks were “moving in the right direction [since] we have made some progress.” He added that the tone of the meetings was “positive and generally constructive,” enabling differences between the two countries needed to be narrowed further. Although issues needed to be resolved, both sides would work hard to do so.
Some journalists sought to seize on the seemingly positive description as a signal of impending resumption of the six-party talks. Yet that perception was dashed by a State Department spokesperson who commented that there were no breakthroughs and that “there is quite a bit of work still to do.”
Moreover, it would likely be weeks if not months before Washington were to know if there would be additional meetings. The Obama Administration emphasized after the meeting that there must be “real concrete steps and commitments by the North Koreans on their nuclear obligations.”
The U.S. had hoped that the Geneva meeting would be focused on North Korea’s response to U.S. proposals made during the July 2011 bilateral meetings in New York. North Korean diplomats operate under very restrictive instructions from Pyongyang, which prevents their responding to U.S. initiatives during the meeting. Instead, the diplomats must return to North Korea to formulate a response to be presented during the subsequent meeting.
However, sources indicate that the North Korean delegation arrived in Geneva without any guidance on responding to U.S. conditions on Pyongyang’s uranium-based weapons program, centrifuges, or other concrete steps forward. If true, Pyongyang’s actions reflect a lack of intent to move toward resuming the six-party talks or a calculation that the Obama Administration will eventually abandon its requirement for progress on preconditions.
Washington and Seoul continue to insist that resumption of the multilateral nuclear negotiations must be preceded by tangible improvement in inter-Korean relations, a resumption of North Korea’s denuclearization commitments—most notably a return of IAEA inspectors to Yongbyon and a freeze on uranium processing—and a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
However, the Obama Administration’s policy toward North Korea also seems driven in part by believing bilateral talks can be used to prevent or postpone Pyongyang’s next provocation. But if North Korea perceives that it is not achieving its objectives through talks or that Washington is stringing it along, the regime will resume the well-worn path to raising tensions to gain negotiating leverage.
Dual Messages from Obama Administration. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned during his trip to Asia that North Korea remained a “serious threat,” accusing it of “reckless and provocative” acts. He vowed that the U.S. would maintain or even increase its military forces in Asia in order to defeat North Korea if it were to attack.
Panetta’s comments were directed less at Pyongyang than at reassuring nervous U.S. allies that potential draconian cuts to the defense budget would not lead to U.S. force reductions in Asia. If the congressional “super committee” fails to agree on $1.2 trillion reduction in the federal deficit over 10 years by November 23, there will be automatic cuts of $500 billion in defense spending on top of previous $450 billion.
His vow that there would be no degradation of the U.S. commitment may be reassuring, but it is questionable whether it is practical. Under such a doomsday scenario, one wonders how additional defense spending cuts wouldn’t lead to a reduction or hollowing out of U.S. forces worldwide.
Panetta’s harsh comments on North Korea, along with expressions of “skepticism” over dialogue with Pyongyang, took place concurrently with Bosworth’s diplomatic mission with North Korean counterparts. Had this juxtaposition taken during the Bush Administration, pundits would have depicted it as clear indicators of a dysfunctional foreign policy undermined by warring factions. Panetta would have been criticized as a neoconservative sabotaging delicate diplomatic engagement.
Similarly, anonymous senior U.S. military officials who were quoted as saying that the U.S. wasn’t “rushing back to the table when the North Koreans dangle some minor, reversible concession” would have been described by the media as overstepping the boundaries of civilian rule of the military.
Potential for Provocations in 2012. Although North Korea has been more well-behaved in 2011 than was expected, 2012 could be another tumultuous year. In the run-up to 2012 elections in both South Korea and the U.S., Pyongyang may see both allies as increasingly willing to negotiate to prevent another provocation.
Washington and Seoul must therefore ensure that their defenses and provocation response plans are sufficiently vigorous to respond to the spectrum of potential North Korean actions. South Korea’s ongoing Defense Reform Plan 307 and joint U.S.–South Korean provocation response planning efforts are prudent and should be continued.