Interview: Canceled North Korean Talks With US Envoy 'Disappointing'

South Korean soldiers wearing gas masks at an anti-terror drill in Seoul at the sidelines of the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises against a simulated North Korean invasion, Aug. 21, 2013.

On Aug.  30, North Korea disappointed the United States by abruptly canceling Human Rights Ambassador Robert King’s scheduled visit to Pyongyang aimed at securing the release of Kenneth Bae, an American citizen detained by North Korea since last November. The North cited recent U.S.-South Korea [ROK] military exercises as a major reason for the cancellation.  North Korea experts say, though, that such joint exercises are conducted on a regular basis. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) President Joseph R. DeTrani about Pyongyang’s latest move and its possible repercussions. Ambassador DeTrani  was formerly the Special U.S. Envoy for the Six-Party Talks (2003-2006), North Korean Mission Manager in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center.

Q: Why do you think Pyongyang rescinded Ambassador King’s invitation at the last minute?

A: I think there was a good deal of optimism that Ambassador King was invited to Pyongyang to discuss the release of Kenneth Bae. Pyongyang rescinded that invitation at the last minute, which was perplexing and extremely disappointing.  As you know so well, the media in Pyongyang made it clear that this was related to the yearly Ulchi Freedom exercises between the ROK and the U.S.  But these are yearly exercises which are, in fact, computer-simulated exercises.  It’s a little surprising that they would have used that as a reason for canceling this visit, which was very important and scheduled. I really can’t answer why they canceled it at the last minute. It’s very disappointing.

Q: There is some speculation that Pyongyang might have canceled it because they could not get anything from Washington in return for Kenneth Bae’s release. Do you agree?

A: Again, I don’t know the reasoning behind their cancellation. But I can tell you that going forward with a visit like that with the ambassador to discuss the release of Kenneth Bae on humanitarian grounds would have been a very positive development between the two countries, and would have lent itself to a greater trust and potential movement on some other critical issues.

Q: If you look at North Korea’s track record, they usually try to get something in return for their concessions, and they’ve often succeeded.  In that respect, don’t you think Pyongyang wanted something like the opening of a high-level dialogue with the U.S. when they initially invited Ambassador King?

A: They may have been thinking along those lines, but that’s very unfortunate.  You know, one would think that after twenty years of negotiations they would have realized that activities of this type are unconditional, and that when we come together, we should not have conditions for coming together.  When we talk about resuming the Six-Party Talks, it should be unconditional.  And it’s the same thing with discussing Kenneth Bae on humanitarian grounds. It should be an unconditional offer on their part. They may be thinking that, but after twenty years they must have realized that the U.S is not prepared, in my view, to respond to conditions for moving forward with the discussions or negotiations. They should be unconditional.

Q: In your recent opinion piece in the Asia Times online, you pointed out there’s reason for some guarded optimism that a peaceful resolution of the tense situation with North Korea is achievable.  Do you still hold to that thinking after witnessing North Korea’s bellicose behavior until early this year?

A: Given that hopefully there is no additional nuclear test and no missile launch, I think this would be a fortunate development to happen. If indeed there is no additional missile launch and no nuclear test, yes, I do think there is reason for that.  We’re talking about [the joint ROK/North Korean industrial park] Kaesung, opening and forming a joint committee, the internationalization of Kaesung, the reunification of families between the North and the South, the possibility of [ROK President] Park Geun-hye’s idea of an international peace park at the DMZ [demilitarized zone].

All these are positive, confidence-building measures where the ROK and DPRK [North Korea] can build confidence together, where the DPRK can build confidence with the United States and with other countries—certainly with China, Russia and Japan.

So as long as we continue on that path, part of that would be the release of Kenneth Bae. That’s why we were all encouraged by the invitation of the ambassador who was to visit Pyongyang and discuss the release of Kenneth Bae on humanitarian grounds. So I’m guardedly optimistic.  Let’s be candid here, though.  We’ve been guardedly optimistic in the past, and have been disappointed. We have to have conditional optimism with the reality that in the past our optimism was occasionally put aside when developments took place like the nuclear test and missile launch. So, we have to see what happens in the near term.

Q: Pyongyang has been trying to pursue a so-called “charm diplomacy” recently, such as offering high-level talks to the United States and resuming various kinds of talks with South Korea.  Do you think this is the start of any fundamental change in North Korea’s foreign policy?

A: Well, we’ve already had over ten years of disappointments.  So I think that many who look at recent history would say we’ll be most likely disappointed.  I take a different tack.  I take an optimistic view.  We have a new leadership in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un and the new team of senior supporters who team with him in the [North] Korean People’s Army, the [ruling North Korean Workers] Party, and the National Defense Commission.

So I think Kim Jong Un could be looking at a different approach to resolving these issues with the ROK, the U.S., and other countries. If it was [former North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il, it would be the same place. But I think there is a possibility with the new leadership, with the senior leaders around Kim Jong Un, that it could be different.  Of course, it’s guarded optimism. In the past, things happened so, but our optimism proved to be misplaced.

Q: If you look at North Korea’s behavior for the last couple of years, there were some troubling things such as its missile launches and nuclear tests.  In that respect, Pyongyang’s “charm diplomacy” could be seen as a disguised peace offensive, right?

A: I think there could be many reasons for that. I think one is the reality that North Korea needs to engage with the ROK, the United States, and other countries for its own economic well-being. There is an economic imperative here, like attracting international investment so that North Korea can eventually become a legitimate nation-state interacting with international financial institutions. Another reason is, I think, that China, as an ally of North Korea, has obviously not been happy with North Korea’s missile launch and nuclear test. So I think there is a China aspect to it, and I think China would like to see North Korea return to the Six-Party process which lends itself to implementing the September joint statement in 2005.

Q: Since Kim Jong Un took power in April 2012, he has shown governing styles somewhat different from his father’s, such as accompanying his wife in public events.  At the same time, he has repeated his father’s mistakes, such as launching missiles and conducting a nuclear test.  How do you assess him as North Korea’s new leader?

A: That’s a very difficult question. He’s been in power for a year and half, so I would say he is in control. He’s a young man who didn’t have much time to prepare for such a position, but he’s in control and has made some major decisions on personnel. That tells me this is a man who knows he wants to have a team around him who support his views. So I see him as being domestically a strong leader in control of things. With respect to relations with the ROK and the U.S. and to international issues related to their nuclear programs, I think there have been elements of disappointment with the recent nuclear test in February and the missile launch in December last year.

But we’re talking most recently—the last few weeks of what you call charm diplomacy, or something of that nature. Well, he’s reaching out to the ROK.  He’s saying the DPRK is prepared to reengage, hopefully reengage, on denuclearization. Ultimately, normal relations between the ROK and the DPRK on lots of issues have to be discussed and resolved. So I see a new leader not necessarily following his father’s footsteps, and seemingly making his own decisions. I think we’re working with a different team.

Q: In that respect, Kim Jong Un missed a golden opportunity to show goodwill when he canceled Ambassador King’s invitation. Do you agree?

A: I agree with you. Canceling Ambassador King’s visit at the last minute was very unfortunate. Hopefully the invitation will be reoffered, and the ambassador will be invited to Pyongyang to discuss the humanitarian release of Kenneth Bae. And I think this is not an issue that can't be reversed. And it can be turned around, and quickly, so we can build mutual trust. The next few weeks and months or so will be very critical. Let's see what happens.


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