Thursday, May 22, 2014

“Track 1.5” US-N. Korea talks being held in Mongolia

Talks featuring government figures and private sector experts suggest a turn toward dialogue by the North By Park Hyun, Washington correspondent and Gil Yun-hyung, Tokyo correspondent A “Track 1.5” meeting between North Korea and the US reportedly started in Mongolia on May 21. Attendees at the half-government, half-private sector talks were said to have included Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and various former US State Department officials. One of the reported visitors on the US side was Joel Wit, a former State Department official in charge of North Korea who now runs 38 North, a website on North Korean issues at Johns Hopkins University. The Track 1.5 meeting would be the first in eight months, with the last being held in Germany and the United Kingdom last September. It suggests that Pyongyang has resolved its internal issues in the wake of last December’s execution of former second-in-command Jang Song-thaek and is now working once again to resume dialogue with Washington and the six-party talks on its nuclear program. After proposing senior-level talks in June 2013, North Korea suggested a number of negotiation plans to Washington through the Track 1.5 meetings and China. The situation halted abruptly in December, around the time of Jang’s execution, and remained quiet until very recently. “The fact that Ri Yong-ho is himself attending the meeting suggests that North Korea is strongly committed to resuming dialogue,” said a diplomatic source in Washington on condition of anonymity. It also suggests that North Korea, which hinted about a possible fourth nuclear test in late March, may have abandoned the idea of playing that card. “North Korea’s military and foreign ministry are sometimes out of sync,” said the Washington source. “But it is true that the odds of a nuclear test have dropped since late April, when the North Korean Foreign Ministry said there was ‘no time limit on nuclear tests,’” the source added. Also drawing attention was North Korea and Japan’s agreement to reopen government-level talks in Stockholm on May 26-28, the first in around two months. Some analysts saw a connection between Pyongyang’s broader diplomatic push - nearly simultaneous talks with Washington and Tokyo - and its ties to Beijing. In their view, it may be trying to reduce the discomfort of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to South Korea, a very awkward diplomatic event for the North. One factor in this interpretation is a scheduled South Korea visit on May 26-27 by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss Xi’s visit and the summit between South Korea and China, which will be taking place at around the same time as North Korea’s meetings with the US and Japan. In a May 21 article, Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper noted that the dates and venue for the Stockholm meeting are somewhat unusual compared to previous North Korea-Japan talks, which had mainly been two-day events in places like China or Mongolia. “It suggests that North Korea wants to hold ample discussions somewhere far away from China at a time when its ties with China are a bit frayed,” said a Japanese government official. It isn’t yet clear what will come of Pyongyang’s diplomatic push. In terms of relations with Washington, the key issue is the response from the Barack Obama administration, which insists that its basic policy approach on North Korea hasn’t changed. But the presence of some in the administration arguing that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have only increased amid Washington‘s emphasis on sanctions could be a new variable, while conciliatory gestures from North Korea could give hope to US dialogue proponents. During its talks with North Korea, Japan is expected to try for an agreement on reopening the investigation of abductions of its citizens. As a tradeoff, Pyongyang has been asking for it to lift some of its sanctions, including restrictions on visitor traffic. It also appears likely to ask for a resolution to issues surrounding the sale of the General Association of Korean Residents (Chongryon) headquarters to a Japanese company at a below-market price. Tokyo currently maintains that the government is not in a position to intervene on the Chongryon building, which is being auctioned off according to judicial procedure. If its hands truly are tied, it may mean another delay in resolving the abductee issue.  

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