North Korean and US negotiators are set to restart long-stalled denuclearization negotiations in Stockholm on Friday, at a time when Western European allies are demanding a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss Pyongyang’s recent ballistic missile launches.
North Korea-US talks have not taken place since a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in Hanoi failed to deliver an outcome in February. The two leaders subsequently met briefly in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in June, when they agreed to resume talks.
There has been widespread speculation in Seoul and Washington that Trump’s dismissal of his hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton eased the way for the upcoming discussions. As such, the talks could lay the groundwork for a third North Korea-US summit – and possibly a “small deal” between the two long-term antagonists.
Meanwhile, France, Germany and the United Kingdom are requesting a UN Security Council session next week to discuss a series of ballistic missile tests North Korea has conducted this year. On Wednesday, North Korea test-fired what South Korea said was a submarine-launched ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.
Friday’s talks are preliminary, working-level talks. The leaders of the two sides working-level delegations, Stephen Biegun of the United States and his counterpart, Kim Myong Gil of North Korea, are set to meet Saturday.
However, the parties have disclosed neither the exact timing, the agenda nor the venue in Sweden.
North Korean officials have frequently held talks in the Nordic countries. Sweden is a particularly prominent player, given that it represents US interests, when necessary, via its large embassy in Pyongyang. North Korea and Washington do not share diplomatic relations.
There are grounds for cautious optimism. Trump seeks a foreign policy success ahead of next year’s election campaign, and North Korea is keen to get something in motion before the end of this year – which Kim has set as the deadline for his engagement process with Washington.
North Korea may also seek some kind of deal in order to bolster Trump – the first and only sitting US president to engage with a North Korean leader – against a more hostile Democratic Party candidate.
The North Korean negotiator, appeared upbeat on Thursday, when he briefly spoke to reporters at Beijing International Airport while en route to Sweden. “As the US side sent a new signal, I bear high expectations and optimism, and I am also optimistic about the results,” Kim Myong Gil said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
It is not clear what the “new signal” was; it may refer to Bolton’s dismissal; to Trump’s vague mention on September 18 of a “new method” in talks; to both; or to neither.
With the Hanoi summit having collapsed over US hopes for what has been called a “big deal” – total denuclearization packaged with action on other weapons of mass destruction – pundits in Seoul are hopeful that a small deal might be feasible.
“I think it is going to be a replay of what happened before Hanoi, when a number of working level meetings took place,” Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute, told Asia Times.
With Bolton having left the administration, Go suggested that the “Libyan model” – of total unilateral disarmament, in exchange for subsequent incentives – will be dropped as a US negotiating demand. “I think it is no coincidence – the statement Trump made on a ‘new method’ and Bolton’s departure,” Go said. “I think Trump will be more flexible and engaged in a step-by-step approach, and may take Yongbyon as a major concession for sanctions relief.”
In Hanoi, Kim offered to shut down his flagship nuclear complex at Yongbyon, a step that experts say would be very significant in reducing North Korea’s capacity to process plutonium and enrich uranium. However, Yongbyon’s closure would not reduce Pyongyang’s inventory of existing nuclear warheads, nor would it impact a second uranium enrichment facility believed to exist near Pyongyang.
Given these various issues, Go suggested that the talks may pave the way for a third Kim-Trump summit at which a “small deal” may be agreed to. But he warned: “There is not going to be a big breakthrough.”
Another expert, noting the amount of in-depth, bilateral and multilateral engagement a viable and sustainable deal would require, was more downbeat.
“Any kind of agreement that addresses security concerns and disarmament issues is a long-term, long range complicated deal, and that requires institutions to lay it out, to implement it and to sustain it,” said Seoul-based Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University. “I don’t see this really going anywhere.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, France, Germany and the UK requested that a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council take place next week to discuss a series of short- and medium-range ballistic missile tests conducted by North Korea this year, Reuters reported Thursday, citing unidentified diplomats.
UNSC resolutions ban North Korea from ballistic missile tests, but Pyongyang – which is, itself, a UN member – has persistently ignored them. Although North Korea is heavily sanctioned by the UN, the UNSC has no enforcement mechanism to physically prevent the tests.
The launch of what North Korea says was an SLBM on Wednesday was just the latest in a series of tests of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and multiple-launch rocket system projectiles Pyongyang has tested this year. But there remain questions over Wednesday’s test: On Thursday, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said they believed it was fired from a seaborne surface platform, rather than a submerged vessel.
The timing of the European-sponsored UNSC talks may not be ideal for several interested parties.
The North Koreans are likely to be irked, but may win low key backing from their UNSC permanent member allies, Beijing and Moscow.
After all, Washington is finally engaged in talks with Pyongyang, and Trump has made clear he is not concerned by short- and medium-range missile tests which do not threaten the US.
As for South Korea, it pays lip service to North Korean military threats but is more focused on tension reduction moves that would permit the Moon Jae-in administration’s key priority – cross-border economic engagement -– to get started.
However, the European initiative will almost certainly be welcomed by Tokyo, which feels threatened by Pyongyang and in whose exclusive economic zone one of the North Korean projectiles splashed on Wednesday.