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POST: What to Expect from Stephen Bosworth’s Trip to the DPRK

December 8, 2009

This week, Stephen W. Bosworth goes to Pyongyang. As the highest US administration official to visit the once termed “hermit state” since Assistant Secretary Chris Hill visited  in October 2008, media speculation is running rampant. But what seems to be consistent in the calculated guesswork not only of the fourth estate as well as former administration officials, academics, and other North Korea watchers, are low expectations. “An immediate return to Six-Party Talks, complete denuclearization, and the singing of the angels” – this is not going to be the tag line of any forthcoming story on US-DPRK negotiations for some time. But, then, why is he going?

Although the tone of some in the international community and many pundits has been somber, agreement is also pervasive that when the North accepts an offer to meet and extends a formal invitation, one doesn’t put it at the bottom of the Holiday Party invite pile and move on. One accepts. For lack of a better option, we have to accept. This is due purely to the fact that no movement by either side during a meeting still allows both sides to shake hands, take some pictures, and appear to be moving towards some common goal. It’s likely to be mostly lip-service – but that’s okay, and here’s why.

This morning, in a briefing given to press at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, former Bush Administration Special Envoy to North Korea Jack Pritchard laid out the impressions he and colleagues received in a recent trip to the DPRK. Other than the insight into North Korean daily life that we all enjoy and, dare I say it, crave, he also bluntly stated that he doesn’t expect a breakthrough during Ambassador Bosworth’s trip. The North, he stated, are reverting to their 2005 LWR (light water reactor) stalling tactic, this time citing the preemptive need for a US-DPRK peace treaty before returning to the Six-Party process. The headlines are almost identical – “US will only discuss LWR after NKorea rejoins nuclear treaty” from Sept. 19, 2005 mirrors “South Korea Wednesday questioned North Korea’s calls for a peace treaty with the United States, declaring its real aim is to buy time to make more nuclear weapons” from this morning.

These lackluster expectations are echoed by many previously involved in North Korea negotiations, including Georgetown Professor (woot!) and former Director for Asian Affairs at the NSC Victor Cha. In a interview with Politics-Pwn3d he stated that this trip is  “not likely to lead to any major breakthrough, but what it will be effective at doing is moving the Chinese” because only then will the US be able to go to them, after a failure to bring them back to talks and say, “All right, we did it.  Now, help us get ‘em back to the Six Party Talks.” In a nutshell, his trip is “a good way of demonstrating U.S. leadership, U.S. initiative, U.S. political commitment, to the talks and the negotiations, but it’s also a good way of getting the Chinese to work a little harder.”

This is an old tactic and the administration knows it. In the daily briefing to press at the State Department this afternoon, Asst. Sec. PJ Crowley stated that “we have a fairly good understanding of how North Korea operates in these kinds of settings. It’s unlikely their response will be, ‘yeah, we’ll meet you a week from Tuesday.'” He also acknowledged that the administration would not be surprised if superfluous issues came up during the Bosworth talks, but continued to state that these issues would and could be dealt with at a later date.

So what now? Well, due to North Korean being “the dark side of the moon” as Mr. Crowley characterized today, contact with Bosworth will be extremely limited until Thursday, when he is (planned to) fly back to Seoul via Beijing where he will address awaiting press. Most envision future consultations and much stalemating by the North before any decisions are made on the future of the Six-Party process and, hand-in-hand, US-DPRK relations. But this is okay. Both sides are sitting down at the table and after the disastrous Hill visits of the ‘noughties’ and the North’s nuclear test this year, not much can be worse.

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