State Department: North Korea has to talk to South Korea before it talks to the U.S.
Former President Jimmy Carter may believe that the North Korean regime really wants to rejoin negotiations with the United States, but according to the State Department’s top Asia official, North Korea will first have to make nice with South Korea. In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity between the countries involved ...
Former President Jimmy Carter may believe that the North Korean regime really wants to rejoin negotiations with the United States, but according to the State Department's top Asia official, North Korea will first have to make nice with South Korea.
Former President Jimmy Carter may believe that the North Korean regime really wants to rejoin negotiations with the United States, but according to the State Department’s top Asia official, North Korea will first have to make nice with South Korea.
In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity between the countries involved in the almost-defunct Six Party Talks, with U.S., South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese negotiators meeting in various configurations. The talks, which were organized in 2003 to confront Pyongyang about its nuclear weapons program, broke down in 2008. After returning from his rescue mission to Pyongyang, where he was completely snubbed by Kim Jong Il, Carter now believes that a resumption of negotiations is within reach, a position that puts him out in front of what most Obama administration officials are willing to say.
In fact, in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, the State Department is making it clear they won’t get ahead of Seoul in engaging North Korea. Almost all South Korean outreach to North Korea has been halted and the U.S. position is that a thawing of North-South ties must precede any direct engagement from the United States.
"In the current environment given what has just transpired, we think an essential first step needs to be some re-engagement between North and South Korea. And I think that is going to be critical going forward," Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. "And as we have long held, we also think that it’s going to be significant that North Korea again, as we’ve said in the past, underscore its commitment to fulfill its commitments that it took in 2005."
Campbell was testifying alongside assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs Gen. Wallace "Chip" Gregson and General Walter Sharp, commander of United States Forces Korea.
Following high-level visits to Washington by both Chinese and South Korean officials who deal with the Six Party Talks, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, U.S. Special Envoy Sung Kim, and the National Security Council’s Daniel Russell traveled to Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing to get a readout of the current state of play. Campbell traveled last week to Beijing as well, along with National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers and the NSC’s Tom Donilon and Jeffrey Bader.
Carter now not only believes that the North Koreans want to come back to the table; he also argues that "the Chinese are actively promoting the resumption of the six-party talks." Campbell is not so sure.
Following China’s reluctance to blame North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan and difficult negotiations over a presidential statement at the U.N., there is a realization inside the administration that the United States and China are not communicating as well as they should be on the North Korean issue. The recent shuttle diplomacy is meant to address that.
"The truth is that the Cheonan incident, I think, makes clear that China has a very complex calculus that they look at on the Korean Peninsula," Campbell said. "I think there was an appreciation that the United States and China must step up its dialogue on the Korean Peninsula, and we are seeking to do so."
Leading senators on the Armed Services Committee from both parties called on the administration to get tougher with China and harshly criticized the Chinese Communist Party leadership for its recent defense of North Korea’s provocations.
"We’ve heard about stepping up dialogue with China for a long, long time, and it hasn’t resulted in anything as far as I’m concerned," said Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "You say that this event and their failure to take a decent position and response to the attack on the ship, you said complicates their relationship with South Korea. Well, it sure doesn’t help their relationship with us as far as I’m concerned… So I think it’s totally unacceptable and I think China ought to be told in no uncertain terms that it complicates its relationship not just with South Korea, but with us as well."
Ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) also bristled at Campbell’s comment about Chinese commitment to the Six Party Talks.
"Secretary Campbell, one of the reasons why we get a little cynical around here is exemplified by the comment you made about China," he said. "‘Step up its dialogue.’ Remarkable statement. The Chinese have not only not helped us with Korea over the years, they have been an obstacle to increased sanctions."
"China’s response to North Korea’s recent provocations calls into question its willingness to act as a responsible stakeholder in the international system," McCain said.
He also criticized what Campbell identified as the administration’s policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounts to not giving in to Pyongyang’s saber-rattling or brinksmanship with bribes or concessions, while waiting for serious indications they are willing to negotiate in good faith.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) directed his firepower at Carter, lambasting him for not even mentioning the Cheonan incident in his Washington Post op-ed, which he called "awful.’
"[Carter] fails to mention the Cheonan incident. And that certainly puts in doubt his conclusion that the leadership of North Korea that he spoke to is anxious to reengage again," Lieberman said, noting how out of step Carter’s argument was with the administration’s stated policy.
"Frankly, I, too, was surprised by the omission of the Cheonan in President Carter’s op-ed," Campbell responded.
Josh Rogin is a former staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshrogin
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