The Cable

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A sneak peek at next week’s North Korea talks

When North Korea’s lead nuclear negotiator Ri Gun (left) makes his tour of the United States next week, all eyes will be on the State Department, which is planning to make the first face-to-face, government-to-government contact with Kim Jong Il’s regime in quite a long time. Ri arrives in New York today and then will ...

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578378_091023_rigun2.jpg

When North Korea's lead nuclear negotiator Ri Gun (left) makes his tour of the United States next week, all eyes will be on the State Department, which is planning to make the first face-to-face, government-to-government contact with Kim Jong Il's regime in quite a long time.

Ri arrives in New York today and then will be in San Diego early next week to attend what's called the Northeast Asian Cooperation Dialogue. He will then come back to New York later in the week to hold "track two" (nonofficial) meetings organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP), a private insiders' policy group that has been key in organizing such meetings in the past.

When North Korea’s lead nuclear negotiator Ri Gun (left) makes his tour of the United States next week, all eyes will be on the State Department, which is planning to make the first face-to-face, government-to-government contact with Kim Jong Il’s regime in quite a long time.

Ri arrives in New York today and then will be in San Diego early next week to attend what’s called the Northeast Asian Cooperation Dialogue. He will then come back to New York later in the week to hold “track two” (nonofficial) meetings organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP), a private insiders’ policy group that has been key in organizing such meetings in the past.

The State Department issued the visa for Ri but has been extremely cagey about who will be going to meet with him. Spokesman Ian Kelly said today that State Department officials will probably meet with him in both cities, but no final decision has been made on who that would be.

The hands-on favorite among Korea watchers is Sung Kim, who is officially titled the “special envoy for the six-party talks.” Those talks have been stalled since North Korea unilaterally withdrew in April. Kim was previously deputy to former lead negotiator Chris Hill, then assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. He met with Ri in New York last November. Another leading contender is Korea desk chief Kurt Tong.

Conspicuously absent from the discussion over who will meet Ri is Stephen Bosworth, Obama’s choice for special representative for North Korea policy. Bosworth has been handling the North Korea issue for State part time, maintaining his other full-time gig as dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

The North Koreans have issued repeated invitations for Bosworth to visit Pyongyang, invitations that have gone completely unanswered. The choice of Bosworth, a sacred cow of the Asia policy community for decades, was seen by many as an effort to smooth out relations over the issue with allies Japan and South Korea, countries to which Bosworth has deep ties.

There is a long tradition of engaging the North Koreans through unofficial channels and by using experts that Pyongyang prefers as proxies, such as University of Georgia professor Han Park or journalist Selig Harrison. NCAFP has been at the center of what’s called the “New York channel,” which sometimes includes contact with North Korea’s delegation at the United Nations. The key figure in NCAFP is professor and author Donald Zagoria.

If and when Kim or another U.S. official meets with Ri, the implication is that they would be setting the stage for a resumption of talks, even though the North Korean and U.S. positions on terms of discussion are still far apart. The Obama administration is insisting that any bilateral talks be in the context of the multilateral process and be based on the previous agreement North Korea signed promising to denuclearize.

The North Koreans, however, want direct talks with the U.S. without promising anything and without including regional powers. Kelly, the State Department spokesman, acknowledged that next week’s meetings are essentially that.

“This is really kind of a hybrid,” said Kelly, “It’s not just track two. It’s really a combination.”

TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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