From Russia with Skepticism

North Korea’s resurgent charm offensive has again raised expectations for a resumption of nuclear negotiations or at least a lowering of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. During the past two months, Kim Jong Il or his subordinates have met with all member countries of the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang has proffered vague promises of progress in denuclearization, but has yet to actually take any tangible actions.

Kim’s summit meetings with Russia and China, as well as a new willingness to re-engage with the United States and South Korea, reflect a shift in North Korean policy, though one that has been seen before. The North Korean ship of state veers back and forth between belligerence and engagement, though always on a true course toward achieving long-term objectives.

Pyongyang is driven to its latest iteration of outreach by economic necessities which it perceives can best be achieved through diplomatic means. North Korea’s quest for food aid and economic benefits will moderate the regime’s behavior for the near-term. But, make no mistake about it; a failure to achieve those objectives will lead Pyongyang to again calculate the benefits of provocative actions.

Nor does North Korea always engage in purely binary behavior of only belligerence or engagement. Instead, the regime often displays a simultaneous, schizophrenic implementation of both tactics to unnerve and undermine its opponents.

North Korea’s latest outreach efforts are being met with greater skepticism by the United States and its allies as result of Pyongyang’s provocative behavior during the past two years. Although Washington and Seoul are more willing to engage with Pyongyang, doubts remain over the efficacy of returning to the Six-Party Talks. As is always the case in dealing with the North Korean regime, progress will be difficult, halting, overshadowed by fears of cheating, and illusory.

Kim Jong Il’s summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was typically full of diplomatic and economic promises. North Korean diplomatic pledges – usually simply to return to the status quo ante – were given in return for foreign promises of economic largesse. But, as is always the case with Pyongyang, doubts linger whether either will ever be fulfilled.

After the Kim-Medvedev summit, headlines blared that Kim had promised a nuclear and missile moratorium. Yet, the Russian spokesman merely stated that “in the course of the talks, North Korea will be ready to resolve the question of imposing a moratorium on tests and production of nuclear missile weapons.” Far short of a pledge for unilateral action prior to resuming talks, the bland wording still gives Pyongyang plenty of opportunity to eke out concessions during the Six Party Talks.

Similarly, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson declared following his December 2010 trip to Pyongyang that the regime had vowed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to the North Korean nuclear facility. Richardson declared, “The specifics are that they will allow IAEA personnel to go to Yongbyon to ensure that they are not processing highly enriched uranium and are proceeding with peaceful purposes.” Despite Richardson’s self-aggrandizing visit, Pyongyang never publicly made such a pledge nor carried it out. As such, Russian statements of Kim Jong Il’s supposed pledge must be taken with great skepticism.

Even reports of a Russian-North Korean deal on a pipeline deal connecting Russia with both Koreas must be treated with doubt. Such a massive undertaking would be economically unfeasible unless it includes South Korea. North Korea’s inability to pay for resources – Kim’s summit meeting also sought to forgive a portion of Pyongyang’s existing debt to Russia – makes such a multi-year, multi-billion dollar venture economically unfeasible.

The pipeline project would make sense only if it were to deliver gas to energy-starved South Korea. But Seoul would be wary of entrusting its fuel supply to North Korea control, fearing Pyongyang could threaten to cut off energy supplies during an inter-Korean crisis. There has been no comment from Seoul on the reported pipeline agreement. Moreover, given its dire economic conditions, North Korea usually seeks immediate economic benefits, such as the 50,000 tons of grain promised by Moscow to Pyongyang last week.

Building Momentum for Six Party Talks? North Korean diplomatic efforts could still, however, contribute to a still glacially slow return to multilateral nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang’s willingness to meet with South Korean officials in Bali, reversing an earlier pledge to have nothing to do with the Lee Myung-bak administration, was significant. Similarly, bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks in New York did not lead to an immediate breakthrough but, in conjunction with the inter-Korean meeting, may form the basis for additional contact.

Seoul subsequently softened its approach toward Pyongyang, de-linking inter-Korean engagement from a previous demand for a formal North Korean apology for its two attacks in 2010. Seoul indicated a willingness to allow movement in humanitarian and nuclear issues absent its previous apology precondition.

Washington offered $900,000 in flood relief supplies to Pyongyang, though still refraining from any indication that it would provide large-scale food aid as in the past. North Korea has offered a resumption of talks on repatriating the remains of U.S. troops killed during the Korean War. Though minor steps, they add to speculation of additional secret meetings with Pyongyang such as those that preceded the surprise announcements of the Bali and New York meetings.

Whether the United States or South Korea agree to additional meetings or initiatives with North Korea remains largely dependent on Pyongyang’s actions. U.S. and South Korean officials privately comment that they reiterated their conditions for a resumption of Six Party Talks and are awaiting a North Korean response. A formal North Korean announcement of a nuclear and missile moratorium, combined with an invitation to the IAEA inspectors, would provide a strong impetus to resuming multilateral nuclear negotiations. Even if that were to occur, however, none of the participating countries has high hopes for success.

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