Obama Administration Justifies Its ‘Engagement’ With North Korea

By Patrick Goodenough | October 20, 2011 | 6:19 AM EDT

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il walks in front of his armored train upon his arrival in eastern Siberia, Russia on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – As it prepares to hold “exploratory” talks with North Korea, the Obama administration Wednesday repeated the standard assurance that it would not “reward bad behavior” – but also voiced concern that a failure to talk could prompt the Stalinist regime to do something provocative.

“Our concern is that if we don’t engage, that could result in miscalculations by the North Koreans, as we’ve seen in the past,” a senior administration official said in a background briefing.

“Sometimes when engagement has been broken off, it causes them to lash out in dangerous and unsettling ways,” added the official, who is traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan. “But again, we are not prepared to reward bad behavior and we are not prepared to move forward to the next stage unless they show a true commitment.”

Last year, with no progress seen in resuming long-stalled “six-party” nuclear talks, North Korea raised tensions on the peninsula by allegedly torpedoing a South Korean navy ship and, eight months later, launching an artillery attack on the South.

Asked why the prospect of direct talks with U.S. – something Kim Jong-il has demanded for years – should not be seen as a reward for belligerent conduct, the administration official said it was being made clear to the North Koreans what steps they must take to get the six-party talks back on track. The six parties are North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner announced in Washington that U.S.-North Korea talks would be held in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday “to determine if North Korea is prepared to fulfill its commitments” contained in a joint statement agreed by the six countries in 2005.

The 2005 statement formed the basis of an agreement finalized in 2007, under which Pyongyang pledged to declare all of its nuclear programs and to “disable” three nuclear facilities in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions.

That agreement prompted the Bush administration to remove North Korea from its list of terror-sponsoring states, but late in 2008 the process stalled again, amid disagreements over how to verify compliance. No six-way talks have been held since.

Four months after President Obama took office, Pyongyang carried out a second nuclear weapons test – the first was in 2006 – in what analysts said was an clear attempt to get the new administration’s attention and secure new concessions.

Several days after the nuclear test then State Department spokesman Philip Crowley reiterated that “bad behavior” would not be rewarded – a formulation also used by previous administrations in the context of the drawn-out nuclear standoff.

“You’ve had a pattern here over a number of years, North Korea does a variety of things for whatever reason to get the attention of the international community, thinks it’s being dissed, not being paid attention to and so on and so forth,” Crowley said. “We’re not going to reward bad behavior.”

About six months later Obama dispatched a special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang to urge the North Koreans to return to the table. No progress was reported, and over the following year the sinking of the Cheonan and the artillery barrage sparked fears of fresh conflict on the peninsula.

Then last July, the U.S. invited Kim Kye-gwan, the North Korean regime’s nuclear negotiator, to New York for exploratory talks with Bosworth. Next week’s meetings with Kim Kye-gwan in Geneva will be round two of those talks.

On the U.S. side of the table will be Bosworth, who is leaving his part-time envoy post after the talks, and the man the administration said Wednesday would be replacing him in a full-time capacity, U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Glyn Davies.

‘Shameless hegemonic ambition’

Wednesday’s announcement of the resumed talks came on the heels of new comments by Kim Jong-il on the question of resuming the six-party talks.

“Our principle position remains unchanged that the six-way talks should be quickly resumed without preconditions,” Pyongyang’s official news agency Wednesday quoted Kim as saying during a recent trip to Russia.

“We are willing to improve relations with the United States if the U.S. abandons hostile policy toward North Korea and treat us in good faith,” he said.

During the July meeting in New York, the administration laid out preliminary steps it wants the North Koreans to take ahead of a resumption of six-party talks. They reportedly include a reaffirmation of support for the 2005 agreement and allowing international inspectors to return to nuclear facilities.

“In July, we laid out in detail the kinds of things we’d like to see to demonstrate seriousness,” the administration official said during the background briefing. “They’ve had some time to think about it.”

According to Korea expert Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the administration presumably wants to see whether the North Koreans are prepared to take the preliminary steps.

“Outwardly, there is nothing that the North has done during the Obama administration to give the impression that it is committed to denuclearization,” he argued in a briefing Wednesday.

“While the administration will deem these ‘exploratory talks,’ they will widely be seen as a return to negotiations,” Cha said. “Moreover, holding out the six-party talks as the main purpose of these preliminary discussions is a bit of a red herring – the North would prefer bilateral talks with the United States to six-party talks always.”

Despite Kim Jong-il’s comments about the U.S. dropping its “hostile policy,” his media outlets have not eased off the customary anti-U.S. and anti-South Korean rhetoric.

A commentary published by the Rodong Sinmun mouthpiece Monday lashed out at the U.S. for selling weapons to Seoul, saying the move  “aimed to arm the south Korean puppet forces with the U.S.-made weapons and use them as a shock brigade in a war” against the North.

“The U.S. seeks to escalate the arms race in Northeast Asia and realize their shameless hegemonic ambition at the sacrifice of the Korean nation,” it added.

The regime is gearing up for two major anniversaries next year: February 16 is Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday and April 15 is the 100th anniversary of the day his father, Kim il-Sung, was born. There has been speculation that Kim Jong-il, who reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008, may formally hand over power in 2012 to his third son, Kim Jong-un.

According to South Korean media reports, Kim Jong-un has been given the official title, “Respected General.” (Earlier reports suggested he would be known as “Brilliant Comrade.”)

Kim Jong-il is referred to as “Dear Leader” and his father, who died in 1994, as “Great Leader.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow