One week after North Korea defiantly launched a rocket, the US is working on a delicate balance between condemning the communist state and nudging it back to dialogue.
The US, backed by Japan and South Korea, wants the UN Security Council to send a strong message to North Korea. A draft statement calling for new sanctions against Pyongyang was agreed to on Saturday by five permanent members of the council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — plus Japan, and was to be submitted to the full council today.
The UN push risks provoking North Korea, which had warned that even discussion by the Security Council of its rocket test — seen in Pyongyang as a satellite launch — would lead it to bolt the already deadlocked six-nation disarmament talks.
The new administration of US President Barack Obama has been unequivocal that it seeks to resume six-nation talks — and North Korea has so far been silent on whether it would carry out its threats to quit the dialogue.
Two days ahead of the widely expected launch, Stephen Bosworth, the US special envoy on North Korea, said that the six-way talks — involving China, the US, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan — should resume within a “reasonable” time frame.
“We will be working very close with our partners to ensure that after the dust of the missile settles a bit, we get back to the longer-term priority of the six-party talks,” Bosworth said.
Analysts said the Obama team was mindful of the lessons under former US president George W. Bush, who branded North Korea part of an “axis of evil” before eventually entering the six-way talks.
In its first years, the Bush administration saw the failure of trying to deliberately ignore Pyongyang, said Scott Snyder, director of the Asia Foundation’s Center for US-Korea Policy.
“The North Koreans don’t abide neglect,” Snyder said. “They will make demands in one way or another — through further escalation, possibly further missile tests — to draw the attention of the international community.”
Snyder said the key was “letting the North Koreans know that the only way out there available to them is the one that has been offered” — talks backed by “the collective will of regional players involved in the six-party talks.”
North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in 2006 and one year later reached a six-country deal on aid in exchange for denuclearization, which soon stalled because of disputes over how to verify Pyongyang was carrying out its promises.
Pyongyang has pushed for direct talks with the US, which under Bush insisted that any decision had to come through six-way talks.
“Some people speculate that past precedent has taught the North that if they misbehave, the US reaction is generally to seek to get back to the negotiating table pretty quickly,” said Alan Romberg, a fellow at the Stimson Center think tank and a former State Department spokesman.
“It may think that after some reasonably short hiatus they will get their way, including the US accepting bilateral negotiations,” he said.
But Romberg doubted that the Obama administration would support bilateral talks, saying the new president has shown a dedication in his first months in office to involving US allies.
Charles Pritchard, a US negotiator with North Korea under Bush, said he expected the Obama administration to take a broader approach to North Korea that does not get so tied down to the intractable nuclear issue.