Door to Negotiations, or No?

The reports came fast and furious from Manila the other day. Hello, sweetheart, give me rewrite! North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho says the North will never negotiate on nuclear or missiles! North Nixes Tillerson Talk Offer!

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Manila for the ASEAN Regional Forum (Photo: AP/Aaron Favila)

The stories were breathless, and they were wrong. Anyone familiar with the North’s statements knows that over the past month there has been a major shift in Pyongyang’s formulation about negotiating.

The real story starts with Kim Jong Un’s remarks on July 4, after the North’s first ICBM test-launch, Kim Jong Un introduced a new element to the North’s public position on the nuclear issue. He said:

[T]he DPRK would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations in any case nor flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering the nuclear force chosen by itself unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated.

In the past month, that formulation has been repeated several times (at least five) in DPRK media. Significantly, it appeared in the August 7 Government statement responding to the recent UNSC sanctions. Government statements are not chopped liver. They are vetted, and possibly written, at the highest levels of the regime.

Kim’s formulation was somewhat vague in the original Korean—does the qualifier “unless” modify the entire sentence, or only the second half? Yet the question arises, why would Kim have even raised the image of the “table of negotiations”? It’s not normally part of the North’s public discussion. Previously, a couple of years ago, the routine formula in lower level media commentaries was that the nuclear deterrent was

…not a mere bargaining chip to put on the table for negotiations with the United States.

Then what about Ri Yong Ho’s remarks in Manila on August 7? Didn’t he say the North would “never” negotiate? The media rushed to report that. And here we have an interesting lesson. Ri would not on his own have altered a top-level formulation, certainly not one that had appeared in a Government statement the same day. Well then, what? Did he receive new instructions? Possible, but at the time I thought it unlikely.

In fact, when the North Korean English language text of Ri’s remarks finally became available, it was clear that he had used exactly the same formulation, almost word for word, as the one that has been in play for over a month. The same formulation. . . except it was now split into two sentences:

We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table. Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves, unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the D.P.R.K. are fundamentally eliminated.

So, what do we have? Sleight of hand, splitting the formulation, essentially putting nuclear and missiles off the table, while suggestinug a moratorium (that’s essentially what “flinching an inch from the road of bolstering” means) can be achieved? The August 7 KCNA English report on Ri’s remarks is of no help. It is a brief summary that wriggles around the question of what the foreign minister said, or meant to say, on the key formulation.

Luckily, we have the Korean version of Ri’s speech. And there the key formulation is exactly as it was originally minted—all one sentence. That odd English version? We can only assume it was an editing/printing mistake, probably not career enhancing.

Final point—isn’t the very broad language of the qualifying phrase (“unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the D.P.R.K. are fundamentally eliminated”) a mountain impossible to climb? Experience in past negotiations tells us that the North Koreans can use this sort of vague conditionality however it suits them. Sometimes it prevents progress, but sometimes it actually gives Pyongyang the maneuver room it needs to move ahead. How will we find out? One way seems obvious: go and talk to them.

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