What’s Behind North Korea’s Offer for Unconditional Talks?

Tokyo – US envoy Stephen Bosworth struck an enigmatic note here Friday on the chances for more talks with North Korea after both South Korea and Japan flatly rebuffed Pyongyang’s bid to return to the table without preconditions.

Mr. Bosworth ended a trip to major northeast Asia capitals with this carefully phrased remark: “We are talking about and moving forward in our attempt to address the questions of the Korean Peninsula.”

That comment, following talks at his final stop in Tokyo Friday, raised more questions than it answered. It comes after what some analysts see as a North Korean attempt at reconciliation and what others view as a well-timed North Korean effort to mislead diplomats and politicians about its intentions.

While Mr. Bosworth was in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was in Washington meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He said that North Korea had to take “concrete actions” before any resumption of six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program.

In Seoul, South Korea’s vice unification minister Um Jong-sik found it “difficult” to take seriously North Korea’s call for “unconditional and early talks.”

South Korean officials have characterized the North’s proposal as fitting the pattern of a regime that over the years has pursued a fight-then-talk strategy.

Until recently, North Korea has refused to return to six-party talks, which were last held in Beijing in December 2008. It shifted its position after international condemnation for the shelling in November of a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed.

“North Korea hopes to fool the South Korean people by a tactical change,” says Baek Seong-joo, director of the Center for Security and Strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

Mr. Baek is convinced North Korea’s eagerness to return to the table may appeal to US policymakers. “The US wants to resume six party talks,” he says. “They see a change in the diplomatic climate.”

If North Korea’s position has made an impression on Bosworth, however, he avoided showing it during stops in Seoul, Beijing and finally Japan.

At the outset of his trip in Seoul, he repeated his oft-quoted position that there was no point “in talks for the sake of talks” but did not go beyond his brief formal comment in either Beijing or Tokyo.

What Does North Korea Want From Talks?

China, as expected, has strongly supported North Korea’s call for talks, saying they offer hope for “stability” on the Korean Peninsula. Japanese leaders have been increasingly concerned by rising confrontation on the Korean Peninsula – a major reason why the Democratic Party of Japan has reversed its previously soft-line stance.

Analysts are puzzled, however, as to what North Korea expects from calling for talks – or, for that matter, is likely to gain even if talks resume.

“I can’t figure out Kim Jong-il’s real intention,” says Bae Jong-yun, a politics professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “How much time does he have to manage life in North Korea,” he asks, raising the question of the North Korean leader’s failing health.

Mr. Bae says, however, North Korea’s need for aid may well be a motivating factor. “They need cash,” he says. “They need food.”

As for Bosworth’s mission, he is not sure it had “meaningful results.”

North Korea, he says, “must show a certain credibility,” including signs of serious willingness to give up its nuclear weapons. “Always,” he notes, “there has been only lip service.”