In a surprise move, North Korea proposed high-level talks with the US just days after canceling a meeting with the South. Is this a genuine attempt to ease regional tensions or just another bid to extract concessions?
After months of threatening to wage nuclear war, Pyongyang has begun making tentative attempts to re-establish dialogue with its declared enemies Seoul and Washington. Earlier this month, it proposed high-level talks with South Korea. The dialogue was set to be the first after a nearly six-year hiatus. The neighbors had intended to discuss the normalization of joint economic projects, including an industrial park near their border, but the talks were scrapped over protocol differences.
Now, the North Korean leadership has decided to circumvent the South and engage in direct negotiations with the United States. The rare invitation came from the powerful National Defense Commission led by North Korean head of state Kim Jong Un. "We propose senior-level talks between... the (North) and the US to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula and ensure peace and security in the region," it said in a statement.
Tensions in the Korean Peninsula escalated this year after Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket last December and conducted its third nuclear test in February that triggered tightened UN and US sanctions. The incident was followed by the US and South Korea stepping up their joint annual springtime military exercises, which, in turn, prompted North Korea to warn of a "nuclear war" on the Peninsula.
Exclusive talks with the US
For Hanns Günther Hilpert, Asia expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, North Korea's latest proposal doesn't come as a surprise. "Pyongyang doesn't regard the South Korean leadership as a negotiating partner in matters of peace and security in the region. This role is reserved exclusively for the United States," Hilpert told DW.
Moreover, he said, Kim Jong Un had already relented to international pressure when he decided to send his special envoy for talks with the Chinese government, which, according to Hilpert, has played a major role in Pyongyang's recent policy change.
Beijing had previously expressed its impatience with North Korea, signing up for the UN sanctions and holding talks with high-ranking North Korean officials. Hilpert believes that the new Chinese leadership is not interested in giving the US any reason to increase its military presence in the region.
North Korea remains unpredictable, despite appearing to want to talk. But whatever the motivation behind the latest offer, the Asia expert says it is very likely that the regime will attempt to extract some kind of concessions from the Americans, "particularly considering the country's current state of the economy." These could be demands for food and fuel aid or for the US government to officially recognize North Korea and its security policy, he said.
Keeping the channels open
The recent proposal, which includes talks about a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War of the 1950's, came with strings attached. "If the US is truly interested in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and securing peace and security in the region, including the US mainland, it should not speak about holding talks or making contact on the basis of pre-conditions," the North Korean National Defense Commission added in its statement.
Although it remains unclear whether the leadership of the communist regime is genuinely aiming to ease tensions, Hilpert believes that the only way that talks can succeed is if the US accepts Pyongyang's offer. "There is an urgent need for talks to de-escalate tensions and keep communication channels open," he said.
Hilpert pointed out, nonetheless, that the US administration under President Barack Obama had turned down previous offers to negotiate, stating that North Korea first had to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, take meaningful steps on denuclearization and live up to its international obligations, before a dialogue could begin.
But according to North Korea expert Werner Pfennig, the pre-conditions laid out by the Obama administration could prove counter-productive. "It's difficult to engage in serious negotiations when only one of the parties involved sets the rules," the research fellow at the Berlin-based Institute of Korean Studies told DW. He points out that such conditions would only make sense if set after leading successful negotiations. Besides, the US would have to guarantee Pyongyang that it's not pursuing regime change, he says.
Despite North Korea's long record of making threats to secure concessions, Pfennig believes the US should take the offer seriously this time around, especially since it came from the very top of chain of command.
"North Korea has being trying for decades to negotiate with its declared enemy on equal terms, but, so far, the United States has refused," Pfennig said.
"North Korea is definitely a bizarre regime, but the US would be well-advised to make the next move and engage in bilateral talks with Pyongyang," he said, adding that America's constant unwillingness to recognize the regime diplomatically has been one of the key issues in the year-long crisis.