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Envoy watch: Bosworth heads to Pyongyang

As Amb. Stephen Bosworth and his delegation travels to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean officials, the State Department is setting the expectations bar low, continuing the Obama administration’s wait-and-see approach to dealing with Kim Jong Il‘s regime. “The purpose of their mission is to determine if the North Koreans are ready and willing to ...

575859_091207_bosworth2.jpg
575859_091207_bosworth2.jpg

As Amb. Stephen Bosworth and his delegation travels to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean officials, the State Department is setting the expectations bar low, continuing the Obama administration's wait-and-see approach to dealing with Kim Jong Il's regime.

"The purpose of their mission is to determine if the North Koreans are ready and willing to return to the Six-Party Talks and return to a serious discussion of denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula," a senior administration official said Monday, speaking on background basis. "Our agenda is quite narrow."

"After close consultation with our allies, we agreed that the best way to determine the North Koreans' intentions was to engage with them directly ... we don't have expectations one way or the other whether they are going to say yes or no."

As Amb. Stephen Bosworth and his delegation travels to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean officials, the State Department is setting the expectations bar low, continuing the Obama administration’s wait-and-see approach to dealing with Kim Jong Il‘s regime.

“The purpose of their mission is to determine if the North Koreans are ready and willing to return to the Six-Party Talks and return to a serious discussion of denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula,” a senior administration official said Monday, speaking on background basis. “Our agenda is quite narrow.”

“After close consultation with our allies, we agreed that the best way to determine the North Koreans’ intentions was to engage with them directly … we don’t have expectations one way or the other whether they are going to say yes or no.”

In other words, there’s no agreement yet by the North Korean regime to abide by the September 2005 declaration, which represents the last time the six parties were all on the same page, and there’s no understanding that the North Koreans even want to return to multilateral talks at all.

Those were some of the preconditions that the Obama administration sought to secure in November meetings between North Korean negotiator Ri Gun and State Department Special Envoy Sung Kim when the two sides met behind closed doors informally in San Diego and New York. But even without any assurances, the Bosworth trip is going ahead.

The official praised the sanctions imposed under U.N. Security Resolution 1874, which sought to strengthen the arms embargo, and promised not to reward Pyongyang for doing things the North Koreans already agreed to, such as returning to the talks or standing by the previous agreement.

“There are no inducements or incentives, other than the fact that should they return to the talks they would be in a position to pursue some of the things that were possible should they proceed with denuclearization,” the official said.

The official wouldn’t comment on whether Bosworth would be able to meet with top North Korean leaders, such as  Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju, as has been reported. The delegation Bosworth is leading has broad interagency representation: Daniel Russel of the National Security Council, Sung Kim from State, and the Defense Department’s Michael Schiffer are all along for the trip.

In Monday’s State Department press briefing, the theme of lowering expectations was repeated.

“We are having these talks to ensure a resumption of the Six-Party Talks and to reaffirm the September 2005 joint statement and its goal of complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, “So it’s a very, very simple agenda.”

Many Asia hands see the Obama administration approach to North Korea as pragmatic given the intransigence of Kim Jong Il’s regime and its recent saber rattling. Unlike the Bush administration effort led by Chris Hill, the Obama team doesn’t feel pressured to produce incremental results quickly, especially at the expense of possible longer-term success.

“I have not seen any hints or indications from the North Koreans that they are willing to come back to the Six-Party Talks in a format that we would find remotely satisfactory,” said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a think tank focused on northeast Asia.

Analysts say the Obama administration wants to simply shore up consensus among allies, another casualty of the Hill era, and put the onus back on the North Koreans to do something productive. Sending Bosworth and his delegation is meant to make it clear that America is not the obstacle to progress.

Obama had hugely productive meetings with South Korean President Lee Myung bak during his recent Asia trip, White House officials have noted, with Seoul and Washington on the same page as to how to deal with the North for the first time in a long while.

Bosworth was in Seoul today, and many observers see the spade work he has been doing to firm up positions with allies behind the scenes as the real deliverables of Obama’s North Korea policy thus far.

“That’s been the whole point of everything they’ve done publicly, to keep the expectations low and to keep low visibility on this,” said former North Korea nuclear negotiator Joel Wit, adding, “I think that’s the right approach.”

LEE JIN-MAN/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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