Can U.S. and North Korea get back to ne­go­ti­a­tions?

Events of re­cent months make it dif­fi­cult to even talk about talk­ing

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Bar­bara Demick bar­bara.demick@la­times.com Twit­ter: @Bar­baraDemick

Why can’t the United States and North Korea just sit down and talk about it?

Over the last year, glimpses of a break­through in the long im­passe be­tween the two coun­tries have been ob­scured by anx­i­ety-pro­duc­ing new events — mis­sile and nu­clear tests, a bizarre as­sas­si­na­tion and the cruel death of the Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dent Otto Warm­bier.

Even talk­ing about what talk­ing would look like has proved com­pli­cated.

Nine days af­ter the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, a pair of former U.S. State Depart­ment of­fi­cials and two North Korean diplo­mats met dis­creetly at a ho­tel in Geneva for talks on how to get their es­tranged coun­tries ne­go­ti­at­ing again.

Like oth­ers around the world, the North Kore­ans seemed to be ex­pect­ing that Hil­lary Clin­ton would be the next pres­i­dent, but they were not un­happy with Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory, ac­cord­ing to one of the Amer­i­cans at the meet­ings.

“They were sur­prised at the out­come of the elec­tion, but they had an open mind,” said Joel Wit, a vet­eran North Korea hand who was one of the former U.S. of­fi­cials who par­tic­i­pated. “They were will­ing to wait and see what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would do.”

There was even a slight rea­son for op­ti­mism. Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Trump had said re­peat­edly he would be will­ing to talk di­rectly to leader Kim Jong Un.

“What the hell is wrong with speaking? And you know what? It’s called open­ing a di­a­logue,” Trump had said in June 2016. “If he came here, I’d ac­cept him, but I wouldn’t give him a state din­ner like we do for China and all these other peo­ple that rip us off when we give them these big state din­ners.”

He went on to sug­gest he would serve Kim “a ham­burger on a con­fer­ence ta­ble.”

The ham­burger never ma­te­ri­al­ized.

Shortly af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, plans were made for North Korean en­voy Choe Son Hui to come to New York for backchan­nel talks about re­open­ing a more for­mal di­a­logue. She was sched­uled to ar­rive on March 1. But events in­ter­vened. Two weeks be­fore, Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half brother, was poi­soned to death with VX nerve agent in the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, air­port in an at­tack widely blamed on the North Korean gov­ern­ment; the State Depart­ment can­celed the visa for Choe’s trip to New York.

In early May, a meet­ing fi­nally took place in Oslo be­tween Choe and a group of Amer­i­cans led by Joseph Yun, the State Depart­ment’s deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for Ja­pan and Korea. That meet­ing pro­duced what in diplo­matic par­lance is known as a de­liv­er­able: North Korea agreed to re­lease Warm­bier, the Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dent who had been held for 18 months af­ter al­legedly try­ing to swipe a pro­pa­ganda poster from the Py­ongyang ho­tel where he was stay­ing as a tourist.

That was good news — ex­cept it turned out that the 22-year-old had suf­fered ex­ten­sive brain dam­age while in North Korean cus­tody — for rea­sons that are still un­clear.

Warm­bier died in June shortly af­ter his re­lease. What had been billed by the North Kore­ans as a hu­man­i­tar­ian ges­ture, in­tended to warm re­la­tions, in­stead had the op­po­site ef­fect.

Since then, the North Kore­ans have con­ducted two tests of in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles that they say are ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the United States.

Quiet back-channel talks with the North Kore­ans have been tak­ing place reg­u­larly for years, de­spite the col­lapse of of­fi­cial six­na­tion diplo­matic talks in late 2008. But noth­ing of­fi­cial has been sched­uled, in large part be­cause of a dis­agree­ment about whether there would be pre­con­di­tions for the talks set by the United States.

“We are stuck in this no man’s land. They are not go­ing to have a meet­ing with pre­con­di­tions im­posed on the meet­ing,” said Wit.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion last year had agreed to drop the pre­con­di­tions for talks to be­gin, but a ten­ta­tive deal to ne­go­ti­ate fell apart af­ter the United States in July put Kim Jong Un and 14 other top North Korean of­fi­cials on a per­sonal black­list in re­sponse to a nu­clear test con­ducted ear­lier in the year.

At that point, the North Kore­ans ap­par­ently de­cided that it wasn’t worth their while to bother with a lame-duck pres­i­dent and that they would in­stead wait for the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

De­spite the re­cent ex­changes of threats and bom­bast, Wit be­lieves the North Kore­ans are still will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate. “What they’ve said is that they are open to res­tart­ing a di­a­logue with the new ad­min­is­tra­tion and that they are will­ing to dis­cuss de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, but that these ini­tial meet­ings have to be with­out pre­con­di­tions,” he said.

The U.S. has asked that North Korea make some ges­ture to show its se­ri­ous­ness, such as paus­ing the re­lent­less pace of weapons tests. The North Kore­ans have asked that the United States end its “hos­tile pol­icy” to­ward their coun­try by scal­ing back joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korea.

Scott Sny­der of the New York-based Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions said he be­lieves that North Korea’s in­creased pace of weapons test­ing has been mo­ti­vated partly by the de­sire to es­tab­lish it­self as a nu­clear power in a po­si­tion of strength be­fore sit­ting down to ne­go­ti­ate.

“We are in a kind of prene­go­ti­at­ing phase where both sides are try­ing to shape the en­vi­ron­ment for their own pur­poses,” Sny­der said.

“The prob­lem is imag­in­ing how that tran­si­tions to ac­tual ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

Evan Vucci As­so­ci­ated Press

PRES­I­DENT TRUMP af­ter speaking to re­porters Thurs­day in Bed­min­ster, N.J.

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