Shadow Government

A new line-up for North Korea talks

The administration announced on Oct. 19 that talks will resume with North Korea in Geneva and that a new team will represent the U.S. side. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the administration’s Special Envoy on North Korea and the distinguished Dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will make Geneva his last official meeting before stepping down. ...

Song Kyung-Seok-pool/Getty Images
Song Kyung-Seok-pool/Getty Images

The administration announced on Oct. 19 that talks will resume with North Korea in Geneva and that a new team will represent the U.S. side. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the administration’s Special Envoy on North Korea and the distinguished Dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will make Geneva his last official meeting before stepping down. He will be replaced by Glyn Davies, the current ambassador to the IAEA. Meanwhile, Ford Hart, one of the Department’s top China hands, will continue to serve as U.S. representative to the Six Party Talks.

This shift demonstrates several things about the Obama administration’s diplomacy. First, it signals the end of candidate Obama’s promise of dramatic new engagement strategies with the world’s most difficult regimes. High profile special envoys (Mitchell to the Middle East, Grayson to Sudan, Holbrooke to Af/Pak, Bosworth to North Korea) are being replaced by steady but low-profile professionals from within the foreign service. Davies is only the most recent example. It turns out, as John McCain warned in 2008, that the problem with these regimes is NOT that we lack unconditional high-level negotiations. The Obama team realized that early on, but it takes a little time to reverse signature foreign policy promises.

The other factor at play, I suspect, is the 2012 election. I recall that in 2004 the White House began imposing message discipline and tighter controls over sensitive foreign policy issues like North Korea, Taiwan, and Iraq. High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year.

Finally, lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground. Big breakthroughs are hard to imagine, given the fact that Pyongyang tested a nuclear device, conducted two lethal attacks on South Korea, and revealed its uranium enrichment program since the last tentative agreement was reached on denuclearization in October 2008. Of course, they also failed to implement their side of that agreement — provision of verification protocols — even after we unilaterally lifted sanctions to the great dismay of our Japanese and Korean allies. The North is in a more talkative mood, but Pyongyang has also been telegraphing its intention to consummate its nuclear weapons status in 2012 for some time. The talks in Geneva will at best yield something of a time out in which the North freezes its provocations and perhaps its facilities at Yongbyon. However, we know from experience that they will only agree to easily reversible steps and that we will likely have another crisis before too long -perhaps even in 2012. It is unlikely therefore that we, Japan or Korea will pay much to rent the North Korean nuclear program for a few months all over again. On the other hand, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing all have elections or leadership changes in 2012 and might be willing to take some steps if it keeps things quiet with North Korea for a while.

Given those realities, the team running North Korea diplomacy is reassuring. They are some of the best professionals in the Foreign Service and a bit like the unflappable cops on the old black and white TV shows. I don’t expect we will have a problem with any melodramatic rush for supposedly historic breakthroughs.

"Just the facts, Ma’am."

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @JapanChair. Twitter: @JapanChair

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