Secret US-DPRK Talks? Chris Nelson Deciphers Recent White House Comments

[A number of statements by US Administration officials in recent weeks have some experts wondering whether there are secret US-DPRK talks happening through back channels and what might be the contents of such talks. In the 24 May 2012 edition of the Nelson Report, Chris Nelson ponders the significance of comments by Ben Rhodes, US deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, as reported by Yonhap news agency. We reprint the Yonhap story below, followed by Chris Nelson’s commentary, with kind permission of the author. –CanKor]


That other major “war and peace” problem, N. Korea, also may be the subject of renewed discussions, at least… it seems very premature to talk about “negotiations”. We confirmed in Tuesday’s Report S. Korean and VOA accounts of a “secret” Administration mission to Pyongyang at the end of April, just prior to the failed ICBM/satellite launch.

(For current coverage in the ROK, see “U.S. Officials in Secret Visit to N. Korea Before Rocket Launch” in the English version of Chosun Ilbo.)

Yesterday, an official White House briefing, and then in Tokyo, State Dept. Special Envoy Glyn Davies, who was not on the mission, can be argued to have indirectly confirmed both the trip, and the purpose we had speculated in last night’s Report… that is, interest on both sides in trying to walk the situation back to the 2/29 agreement, including US food aid as a buy-in for resurrecting the agreement to freeze nuclear weapons and missile tests.

Read the excellent Yonhap coverage, below, and see if you share our “translation”.

U.S. to Mull Food Aid For N. Korea If It Changes Direction: White House

WASHINGTON, May 23 (Yonhap) – A White House official said Wednesday that the U.S. will again consider food aid for North Korea if it stays away from provocations and averts a confrontational course.

“I think the precondition is that North Koreans have to demonstrate that they are going to refrain from those types of provocative actions and they are serious about moving in a different direction,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said at a press conference for foreign reporters.

He pointed out that Washington has lost trust in the communist regime as it reneged on a bilateral deal by launching a long-range rocket in April.

The two sides reached an agreement on Feb. 29, nicknamed the “Leap Day Deal,” after high-level talks. It called for the North to suspend some of its nuclear activity and put a moratorium on missile launches. In exchange, the U.S. promised to deliver 240,000 tons of food. Washington halted a related process after the North’s rocket launch.

Rhodes said the U.S. is not convinced that food, if shipped, will reach ordinary people in need such as mothers, children and pregnant women. He stressed that the U.S. remains open to bilateral and multilateral talks with the North.

But he expressed skepticism that Pyongyang will change its mode.”We haven’t seen that indication yet,” he said. “Right now we not optimistic that there will be any imminent breakthrough that could lead to the provision of additional assistance.”

On a trip to Northeast Asia, meanwhile, Washington’s point man on Pyongyang also said food assistance is still a viable option depending on the North’s attitude.

“I think as you all know the United States has been historically very generous when it comes to the provision of nutritional assistance,” Glyn Davies, special representative for North Korea policy, told reporters after meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing.

The U.S. has provided more than 2.2 million metric tons of food, valued at over $850 million, to North Korea since the mid-1990s, he noted.

“And should the opportunity present itself, if we can reach a stage where we can once again have faith in the North Koreans’ ability to abide by its undertakings and its promises, we would like very much to get back to the provision of nutritional assistance,” he said.


OK…so what’s going on here? Here’s what we know and/or what we think it means:

First, the Administration felt badly stung by both North Korea, and critics here, for pursuing the completely rational goal of negotiating a halt to DPRK testing of nuclear weapons and missiles, especially ICBM’s, post the collapse of 2/29 following the missile launch in April.

The problem of no on-going effort to at least put a freeze on WMD development was proving a damned if you try/damned if you fail problem…since critics cheerfully have it both ways. Nothing succeeds but success, and failure by definition makes you naïve, or, in Romney’s immortal words, an “appeaser”.

But if you don’t try…why that’s bad too, especially in a political year.

So in late April, likely after hearing from Track 2 connections in both Europe and the US that the DPRK Leadership still wanted to talk with the US, the White House authorized the “secret” mission of two former CIA officials, one now assigned to the NSC, Syd Seilor, and former State/CIA N. Korea hand Joe de Trani.

(Apparently no one from State? Not clear yet…)

Regardless of what was conveyed at that time, of course, the DPRK went ahead with the failed launch, and subsequent conversations with senior US officials, both on and off the record, argued that completely undercut the “pro-engagement” elements in the Administration.

Further, it made it politically impossible for Obama to attempt further out-reach to Pyongyang, at least until after the November elections, we were explicitly told by officials.

So Obama was left with the worst of both worlds…being hammered by Romney and Cap Hill Republicans for being “naïve” in even trying to negotiate with the perfidious Norks, and criticized for the “continued failure” of his 2008 Campaign promise to negotiate with both the DPRK and Iran.

We have been told that following the failed launch, and the US declaration that 2/29 was off in all respects, DPRK representatives in early May conveyed through Track 2 players a desire to try again, and even recommended using a back-channel contact similar to (and perhaps identical to?) the de Trani/Seilor mission.

Senior DPRK officials well known to all the players said that the Foreign Ministry, at least, was stunned by the adverse international reaction to the “peaceful” test, and asked the Administration to keep the conversation going via contacts below the “official” level of Amb. Davies.

There has to date been no confirmation of a second mission, whether by de Trani or anyone else, yet the Rhodes statement noted by Yonhap, above, seems a repeat of the same arguments made by Davies and his assistant, Ford Hart, in the lead-up to 2/29, and in statements prior to the actual launch….namely, we can still work a deal if you don’t “provoke”.

So in that context, Davies in Tokyo saying the US would “very much like the opportunity to present itself” to get back to the 2/29 food for a freeze deal seems to us, at a minimum, the Obama Administration “responding” to the May, post-launch messages from Pyongyang via Track 2.

Whether Rhodes and Davies can be read as a public affirmation of a possible “deal” already discussed by a second “secret mission”, rather than an invitation to rejoin IF the DPRK will refrain from a bomb or missile test…remains to be seen.

Having said all that, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and all the White House and State are saying is the obvious…guys, don’t set off a bomb, don’t set off another missile. If you refrain from renewed “provocations”, we remain open to talks.

But if you do make another nasty “bang”, sanctions and isolation will continue as our policy. The choice is yours.

Hummmm…not exactly “strategic distance” but with inaction producing the same result. And therein lies the rub…the US, ROK, Japan et al are left hoping that DPRK technical ineptitude continues to work like a “freeze”, even if not negotiated.


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