Interview with Mike Chinoy on the Stephen Bosworth Visit to North Korea and U.S.- North Korea Relations in the Era of Obama

Interview with Mike Chinoy on the Stephen Bosworth Visit to North Korea and U.S.- North Korea Relations in the Era of Obama

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(The Korean language version of this interview will be published in Minjog 21.)

Mike Chinoy is currently a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California. A foreign correspondent for CNN for 24 years, in April of 1994 he became the first broadcaster to file live TV reports from North Korea. Chinoy has visited the D.P.R.K. 14 times and is the author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, which Foreign Affairs magazine described as “the definitive account” of the North Korean nuclear crisis. An updated paperback edition current to former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang has just been published and a Korean language version is forthcoming.


[Thomas Kim]: What are your impressions coming out of U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth’s visit to Pyongyang?

[Mike Chinoy]: As [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton said, it was a pretty positive trip. Obviously there is a lot of skepticism on the South Korean, U.S. and Japanese side, and there are still a lot of question marks, but my sense is that this was a potentially important step forward. If you parse the statements made on both sides, it seems clear that while they weren’t negotiating, they covered a whole range of issues that would be the subject of negotiations. If you look at the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) statement, they said that the discussion covered “a peace agreement, normalization of bilateral relations, economic and energy assistance, and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” My sense is that Bosworth was saying to them that if you come back to the six-party talks, these are the issues that will be on the agenda.

From the North’s perspective, they were looking to see if the U.S. was serious about a range of issues beyond the nuclear one. If you look back at how we got to where we are now, there are lots of factors that went into it, but the North Koreans in 2008 became very skeptical about how serious the U.S. was about trying to move forward and were also very skeptical about what South Korea and Japan were going to do. Part of what the North Koreans were indicating in recent months was that if they were getting back into the diplomatic process, they wanted to see a commitment to addressing their concerns, rather than the U.S. insisting that “you denuclearize first and then we’ll get on to these other things.”

It does seem that Bosworth indicated to the North Koreans that Washington was open to addressing these other issues in the context of getting back to the six-party talks and working on the nuclear issues. The question is whether or not another meeting or two is going to be required. The North Koreans did not make any kind of commitment as to when they might come back the six-party talks, but the bottom line is that Bosworth came in and said that he was speaking on behalf of President Obama, and talked with them in a serious way. Both sides used the term “common ground,” which was very significant. Skepticism is always in order with this process as it’s had so many ups and downs, but a year that began very badly is ending on a cautiously encouraging note that diplomacy might get going again.

[Thomas Kim]: Bosworth appears to understand North Korea’s stated grievances with the U.S., and has previously expressed an understanding as to why a peace treaty is important to the North Koreans. What role do you see Bosworth playing in shaping U.S. policy? Will he be someone who shapes policy on the ground, will he play a role similar to [former Chief Envoy to North Korea] Christopher Hill in the Bush administration, or will Bosworth be restricted by his superiors?

[Mike Chinoy]: One of the problems that Chris Hill had was that he was representing a U.S. government that was bitterly divided about what to do with North Korea. This is one of the central themes in my book, Meltdown. Inconsistency crippled the U.S. approach. At particular points, particular in 2008, Hill was saying things to the North Koreans and reaching understandings with them, and then back in Washington couldn’t get support for it. (I cover this in great detail in the updated paperback edition.)

Hill reached an understanding with North Korean negotiator Kim Gye Gwan in spring of 2008 under which North Korea agreed to submit a declaration dealing with its plutonium program, along with a side letter indicating a willingness to address the uranium program issue and their nuclear dealings with Syria, and in return, the North was to be taken off the U.S. State Department list of countries involved in state-sponsored terrorism. When Hill went back to Washington, there was so much pushback from hard-line critics that he was forced to go back to the North Koreans and demand that they submit to a very intrusive inspection regime as a precondition of delisting. That was the catalyst of the crisis that torpedoed the process in 2008. The North Koreans felt that the U.S. was moving the goalposts in the middle of the game. Bosworth is responding to this, telling them that he’s speaking for the President. In the Obama administration, there is nothing on the order of the civil war that existed in the Bush administration over North Korea policy.

One of the concerns about Bosworth is that his role as special envoy on North Korea is a part time position, and thus lacks the stature that, for instance, Richard Holbrooke has as special envoy for Southwest Asia or George Mitchell has as special envoy for the Middle East. So you can understand why the North Koreans might have had doubts about how serious the U.S. was, given Bosworth’s status as a part-time envoy. That being said, however, Bosworth is a serious player, knows the issues, knows the North Koreans, and was clearly given the authorization to say he was speaking for the President. We’ll have to wait and see what if any pushback there is in Washington, but I think Bosworth was trying to indicate to the North Koreans that unlike Christopher Hill, where you constantly got mixed signals, what you see is what you get.

The people in the Obama administration are well aware of what was dysfunctional in the way that the Bush administration handled the North Korea issue. I think they are trying to avoid those mistakes by having fairly consistent policy. There are people who are more skeptical or less skeptical of the North Koreans, but they are much more on the same page than the Bush administration ever was. They are running a far more coherent operation.

[Thomas Kim]: The North Koreans have expressed a desire to pick up where they left off with the Clinton administration. How realistic is this? What has changed since then?

[Mike Chinoy]: The most important change is that North Korea is a nuclear power. It’s given a great many hints that it intends to remain a nuclear power. In fact one of the really big question marks is whether or not, realistically, the North is prepared to put its nuclear program on the table. Frankly, it was a lot easier to work that issue when the North had only enough weapons-grade plutonium for one or two bombs, which was the situation during the Clinton administration, and seemed to be willing to engage in a constructive diplomatic process. Not only has the North made clear that it has nuclear weapons, but you have also had eight years of up-and-down dealings with Pyongyang, which has fueled an acute level of distrust on both sides that is hard to undo. Neither side trusted each other very much at the end of the Clinton administration, but they trust each other a whole lot less now for a lot of different reasons.

So one of the questions is whether or not the nuclear program overall is still on the table. The North has signaled that, “we don’t need nuclear weapons if we don’t feel threatened,” but they’ve also sent hints that what they mean by “not feel threatened” is the end of the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, or the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella that protects South Korea and Japan. For any U.S. government, that is a non-starter, and if this is the North Korean position, then it will be hard to make progress.

My own personal feeling is that there are issues short of full denuclearization where negotiations are worth pursuing. I should say that until you get into a serious negotiating process, we won’t know what is real and what is not with regard to North Korean rhetoric. What we’ve seen in North Korean declarations is that when they make one, it doesn’t mean that this will be North Korean policy forever. The six-party talks are a good example. The North Koreans said last spring that they would “never” return to the six-party talks, and now they have signaled, both to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao when he met Kim Jong Il in October, and more recently to Bosworth, that they are willing in principle to return. So when Pyongyang says “never” it doesn’t necessarily mean never.

Moreover, even if they aren’t willing to give up their nuclear bombs, there are things that can be negotiated. The North has not restarted the reactor, Yongbyon, which would enable it to make more plutonium, so getting a commitment from them not to restart it would be important. It might be possible to negotiate a moratorium on further nuclear tests, which is very important in terms of the North not improving the quality of its missiles or the sophistication of its nuclear devices. They could promise to stop any nuclear cooperation with other countries. Those kinds of steps would be very important in preventing a difficult situation from getting worse, and in making the North Korean nuclear program seem less threatening. There is plenty to negotiate if you get back to the table. The fundamental question is, if the North Koreans are insisting on keeping their nuclear weapons unless the U.S. meets conditions that they know no American government would accept, then that’s problematic.

Will the North Koreans keep their nukes? We don’t really know what their long-term position is. It’s not clear that they know what they will do. Perhaps Kim Jong Il knows. Historically, there is no precedent of a country that tests a nuclear device and declares itself to be a nuclear power then giving up that capability. The nuclear program is a source of national pride for the North, and a device to protect them from what they see as threats to their national security. From the North Korean perspective, having nuclear bombs is a far better guarantee of their security than a U.S. government that has been so inconsistent and shown so many flip-flops in its approach to the North. Until we get into a negotiating process with them, we really don’t know, and so far none of the negotiations have been sufficient to really know what will happen. And these negotiations have to be at a high enough level. We can’t be sure of the outcome, obviously, but there is considerable logic in testing the North Koreans on this. We won’t know what the North Koreans will do unless we get involved in a serious diplomatic effort to find out.

[Thomas Kim]: How do you think Seoul is seeing these recent developments?

[Mike Chinoy]: My sense is that South Koreans are divided in three ways. The government of President Lee Myung-bak is, I would say, conservative, highly skeptical of the process but still interested in engaging with the North, and predictably a little anxious about any U.S.-North Korea bilateral diplomacy for fear of being left out. They are concerned that the U.S. will “go soft.” There are even more conservative elements in South Korea that are really dubious of this whole process, and see North Korea through a traditional cold war lens. They are really dubious about all of this. And you also have the currently out-of-power left that still represents a significant part of the political landscape in South Korea.

The Obama administration has made its relationship with regional allies central to its approach toward North Korea. In large part this is a response to a situation they inherited from the Bush administration, where relations with their historical allies Japan and South Korea were strained. It was a response to how Chris Hill operated. Hill, taking into account the poisonous situation in Washington, had to be a “lone ranger” in order to get anything accomplished. When I was researching “Meltdown,” one source described the policy process during Hill’s time as one where “Hill calls [then Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, and Rice call Bush.” So repairing U.S. relations with Japan and South Korea have been an absolutely crucial part of the Obama administration’s approach, so they have been constantly talking with the Japanese and South Koreans, trying to ensure that there are no nasty surprises. There is some residual concern on the part of the South Korean government. By sending Bosworth to Seoul on the way into Pyongyang and on the way out, the Obama administration is doing everything it can to stay in sync as they move forward. In fairness, moreover, Bosworth made it clear to the North Koreans that he wasn’t there to negotiate, that negotiations had to be done through the six-party talks. As long as Japan and South Korea feel confident that the U.S. will continue to insist on this, there will be less of a problem.

[Thomas Kim]: We’ve read in the news that the Obama administration feels like its sanctions strategy is working to put pressure on North Korea. Yet North Korea has had sanctions against it for decades. What is new or different about sanctions now that suggests why sanctions might be influencing North Korea’s political stance?

[Mike Chinoy]: The record shows that sanctions in fact, have not been very effective in changing North Korea policy. The attempts to get tough with the North Koreans, even when they inflict pain on north Korea, even when that happens, it has not created a change in North Korea. If anything, the pattern has been opposite. When the North Koreans get pushed, they push back harder. In Meltdown, I describe how sanctions and coercion repeatedly produced the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

One glaring example was the case of the Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, where the U.S. targeted North Korea’s access to international financial transactions, hoping to discourage the international financial community from dealing with North Korea. This led to North Korea boycotting the six-party talks. Then, in the spring of 2006, North Korean Foreign Ministry official Li Gun went to the U.S. and proposed the two countries set up a “bilateral mechanism” to resolve the issue. He even said if Washington wanted to monitor the North’s financial transactions, it should let Pyongyang open an account at Citibank. This was rejected by the U.S. Then the North asked for a bilateral meeting with Chris Hill. This too was rejected. This led to the North Korean missile tests in July 2006, which in turn led to the U.N. sanctions resolution. Instead of backing off at this point, however, the North Koreans then tested a nuclear bomb on October 9. Only when Hill violated his instructions from Rice and held a bilateral meeting with North Korea’s lead negotiator with the U.S. Kim Kye Gwan, during which the two sides agreed to create the “bilateral mechanism” to address the BDA issue, did the North came back to the six-party talks. And within 4 months you had the Feb 13 2007 agreement. I think this is “Exhibit A” about what happens when you try to pressure the North Koreans.

The other thing is that, however upset the Chinese were about the North’s nuclear test last spring, they have made clear that they are not on board with pressuring Pyongyang with sanctions. There is no other way to interpret Wen Jiabao’s visit to North Korea in October, followed by a senior Chinese general visiting Pyongyang and talking about the traditional friendship between the two countries. The Chinese are absolutely not on board with sanctions, and without the Chinese, sanctions aren’t going to work.

There is a counterargument that one of the reasons the North is being accommodating now and abandoning its bellicose approach is that it’s been chastened by sanctions. I don’t buy that. The North, for a variety of reasons, took a very muscular approach in the winter and spring. Then, having sent a message of, “don’t mess with us,” they signaled in the summer that they were ready to engage. Their behavior recently is not because they have been chastened by sanctions. Their behavior has their own internal logic.

Given the Chinese position, sanctions are unlikely to be effective. I do think that if American attempts to engage now through Bosworth don’t go anywhere because the North Koreans are so intransigent that diplomacy runs out of steam, then Washington can go to Beijing and say, “we went the extra mile, they are still being unreasonable. Having said that, a) it doesn’t look like this is happening; and b) even then the Chinese may still not be on board with sanctions.

[Thomas Kim]: We know from past experience that when the U.S and North Korea engage in “talks” with each other, that there may not be a sincere desire to work toward diplomatic progress. What do you think is driving the Obama administration’s recent, outwardly diplomatic steps? Do you feel like there a genuine desire to make progress toward formal diplomatic relations?

[Mike Chinoy]: I don’t really know. The first 9 or 10 months of the Obama administration the policy was reactive. Whatever reason the North Koreans had, they were pretty stupid to slap in the face a president who came in having campaigned on a policy of engaging with American adversaries. You can’t discount the anger and disgust felt by many in Washington toward the North Koreans for staging the missile test and the nuclear test. Whatever the North Koreans say about having abided international law with regard to the missile tests, they knew, and had been told by American interlocutors, that this was a really bad way to start things off with the new U.S. president The Obama administration saw this as a slap in the face, and you can’t discount how this further eroded whatever goodwill the U.S. had toward North Korea, and heightened the skepticism about doing anything with the North Koreans. There is still the overriding sense of zero trust, total skepticism, and considerable dislike of the North Korean system. But that being said, if they can get back to the six-party talks, they have made clear progress. During the Bush administration, you had ideologues talking about not being in the same room with the North Koreans for fear of being “contaminated” by them. There is none of this ideological nonsense in the Obama administration.

I don’t think this administration is going to give much to the North Koreans absent major moves on the nuclear front. The jury is still out on precisely how far the Obama people are willing to go. It’s a chicken and egg thing on who is going to go first. It depends partly on the North Koreans. We won’t know what will happen until we get into diplomacy, and the North is not going to get into diplomacy until it knows that the U.S. is serious about doing more than berating them about nuclear weapons. What the KCNA report about Bosworth’s visit signaled is that Washington is prepared to look at a whole range of issues if they can somehow get back to the bargaining table.

[Thomas Kim]: Do you have any plans to visit North Korea as part of this upcoming episode of potential U.S.-North Korea engagement? Do you see yourself playing a role in the negotiations?

[Mike Chinoy]: I see myself as reporter and an analyst, and not playing any role in Track II [diplomacy]. I would like to get back to North Korea. I haven’t been since 2005. The climate has improved enough and North Korea is more receptive to visits by American academics and scholars. I would love to get back and see what’s going on.

[Thomas Kim]: If you had to identify more immediate, short-term steps that we should be looking for, steps that might lead to prospects for formal U.S.-North Korea relations, what would they be?

[Mike Chinoy]: One big question now is whether what Bosworth said to North Korea and what North Korea said in response is enough for the North will come back to the six-party talks, or whether another meeting is going to be required. Will it be necessary for some kind of practical steps to be taken by the U.S. to indicate to the North Koreans that by doing something, there is some sort of basic good will? I don’t really know.

One of the interesting questions that will come up at some point is that the U.S. wants North Korea to reaffirm the September 19 2005 declaration made at the six-party talks concerning the goal of a denuclearized peninsula. Privately, the North Koreans have complained that they are being singled out, and have argued that the other parties also made commitments at that time. The U.S. side seems to have recognized this. The North Koreans could say that the 2005 declaration underpinned the two subsequent agreements [in February and October of 2007] under which the North Koreans were supposed to get heavy fuel oil and other aid in return for disabling the Yongbyon reactor. The fact is that South Koreans never provided the full tranche of fuel oil they promised, and the Japanese never provided any fuel oil at all.

As part of the renewal of the commitment of September 19 2005, the North may insist on seeing the fulfilling of these commitments from the 2007 deals that are underpinned by the 2005 agreement. That could mean the North demanding to be given the fuel supplies pledged under the 2007 deals. That’s something to watch, because the Obama administration has repeatedly said it would not reward North Korea for doing something that the North Koreans have already promised to do. You hear over and over again in Washington the phrase that “we’re not going to buy that horse again.” The North Koreans can respond, “you never paid for the first horse in full.” We could see a linking of American calls to the North to reaffirm its commitments to the North’s insistence that Americans and other parties reaffirm the commitments that they made, and perhaps carry them out.

The tone now is such that Washington isn’t going to be hung up on a second bilateral meeting if they feel that this would do the trick. Clearly with both sides using the language of “common ground,” it would not be a stretch to see if both sides couldn’t sharpen that definition further before the six-party talks. My bottom line here is to return to the point I began with, that the end of the year is looking a lot less bleak than the beginning of the year did.

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