SEOUL – Echoing a classic Martini advert of the 1970s, the US special envoy to North Korea says American negotiators are ready to meet their North Korean counterparts and talk anytime, anywhere.
“We continue to hope that [North Korea] will respond positively to our outreach and our offer to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions,” Ambassador Sung Kim said in Seoul on Monday.
His comments came three days after North Korea signaled, via comments from national leader Kim Jong Un, that it was ready to either talk to or confront the United States. Experts told Asia Times then that the implied emphasis was on “talk”, an analysis that appears to be born out by the US response.
The US envoy arrived in South Korea on Saturday for discussions with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. None of the three states are currently engaged in negotiations with North Korea.
Talks between the US and North Korea, and collaterally South Korea and North Korea, have essentially dwindled away to nothing after a high-potential Pyongyang-Washington summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended without a deal in 2019.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has made clear he favors diplomacy with North Korea, but is not as eager for direct talks with the North Korean leader as was his predecessor Donald Trump.
This approach raises the importance of working-level discussions.
Sung Kim was named Washington’s point man on North Korea by Biden during a South Korea-US summit in Washington last month. However, the envoy wears two hats. The Korean-speaking Korean-American, a former US ambassador to Seoul, is also the current ambassador to Indonesia.
That may suggest a dearth of Korea-related talent in the US State Department.
Though Kim is highly regarded within the Pyongyangology community for his expert knowledge of peninsula affairs, some South Koreans close to the Moon Jae-in administration had hoped that a policy-level official – such as John Kerry or Wendy Sherman – would be appointed to the position.
That would have raised the seniority of the role, thereby requiring Pyongyang to assign an equally high-level official as his negotiating counterpart.
One reason Sung Kim made his “anywhere, anytime” public statement may be North Korea’s current non-responsiveness, said Moon Chung-in, who heads the Sejong Institute think tank.
“Right now, North Korea is not answering. That is my understanding.” said Moon, who has advised three South Korean presidents on North Korean policy.
Kim’s statement on Monday essentially punts the ball back in Pyongyang’s court. Though the two countries lack diplomatic relations, they do not lack communication channels.
There exist multiple hotlines across the DMZ; there is a North Korean mission assigned to the United Nations in New York City; a telephone hotline links South Korea’s presidential Blue House and North Korea’s State Affairs Commission (Kim’s executive office); and there is, Asia Times has learned, email contact between related agencies in Pyongyang and Washington.
So if either Kim – the North Korean leader or the US envoy – really wants to talk, what is stopping them?
“That is not a stupid question,” said Rah Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador to both London and Tokyo, who also had experience via the intelligence community of directly engaging with North Korea.
“The only answer to that is that even in interpersonal relations, sometimes we have to go around. There are situations where were cannot engage in direct conversation,” he said.
“This is quite natural. From my experience in dealing with North Korea, there are situations like this where you have to make a detour.”
Moreover, public statements do not necessarily mean that there is zero contact below the radar.
“I am pretty sure they are sending emails and I would think they have conducted some kinds of talks,” said Andrei Lankov, a long-term North Korean watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Before you fly out to some place, you have to do some groundwork and that is not widely advertised.”
Still, in public, the diplomatic mating dance continues to play out.
“They need this dance as neither side is under terrible pressure to start talks, so they want the other side to start,” Lankov said. “The thinking is, ‘it is up to the other side – which needs us more than we need them.’”
“When a relationship is friendly or sort of normal, we engage in direct communications,” Rah said. “The predicament is that the relationship is not that friendly now.”
Lankov thinks that talks are either ongoing or will soon be as it is in both sides’ interest to avoid worsening relations.
“Neither side hopes for much in the foreseeable future but neither side wants to deal with a confrontation in the region,” he said. “So they want to start talks for the sake of talks, and to keep the situation under control.”
An alternative explanation is provided by David Tizzard, a professor of Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University.
He suggests that the public statements going back and forth are in fact domestic, not diplomatic messages – the aim being to assure local audiences that their leaderships are doing their utmost to forestall potential confrontation.
“A lot of good diplomacy does take place behind closed doors, so who are the public messages really for?” asked Tizzard, who studies diplomacy toward North Korea. “It could be for their own people, internal and domestic.”
Moon, of the Sejong Institute, warned that if talks get underway, the US side should have something concrete to offer, so that the North Korean officials do not have to return home empty-handed as they did under Trump.