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 rest of this entry »

NK Blows Off Leap Day Deal With Missile Ploy, by Chris Nelson

Test firing of an Unha-2 missile (photo by KCNA)

[Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report gathered a number of reactions from North Korea experts on what seems to be an about-face by the DPRK on an agreement made 29 February 2012 for a moratorium on missile tests. What exactly happened here? There are a number of theories with disturbing implications. Has the young Kim Jong Un just made his first mistake in international relations? Is this the result of two factions in the ruling elite working at cross-purposes? Was the fledgling leader unclear that a satellite launch bears a striking resemblance to a ballistic missile test? What will this mean for US AID food assistance deal. If the food part of the Leap Day deal is scuttled as a result of the satellite launch announcement, can the US Administration continue to claim that humanitarian assistance is unrelated to strategic and military issues? These and other questions are mulled over by a group of Chris Nelson’s “loyal readers” in Friday’s Nelson Report (16 March 2012), reprinted here by permission. –CanKor]

In barely 24 hours, the situation with N. Korea has gone from skeptical but hopeful to downright furious…and deeply worried a crisis confrontation is coming soon.

The Obama Administration denounced the move as “highly provocative…in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolutions…poses a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea’s recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches.”

The sense of crisis deepened as informed sources learned of the “back story” leading up to Pyongyang’s declaration last night it planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth with a satellite launch on April 15…a missile launch in clear, explicit violation of existing UN resolutions supported by China and the other 6 Party Talks participants. Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Nelson Takes Issue With Andrew Natsios’ OpEd in the Washington Post

[Under the heading “The North Korea Nuke/Food Conundrum” Chris Nelson critiques an OpEd entitled “Stop feeding North Korea’s nuclear ambition” by Andrew Natsios that appeared in the 8 March edition of The Washington Post. Andrew Natsios is currently a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) from May 2001 through December 2005. He is the author of the 2001 book entitled “The Great North Korean Famine”. The following critique is taken from the 9 March 2012 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

US-AID food aid at a Kindergarten in Popdong, DPRK (photo by Erich Weingartner)

Another terrible, conflicting example for the international community is food aid to N. Korea, currently being negotiated as part of a larger US effort to regain some negotiating leverage with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon, missile and proliferation threats far beyond the confines of the DPRK.

W. Bush’s AID Administrator, Andrew Natsios, has an OpEd in the Washington Post this morning which illuminates the risks of fatuousness “goo-goo” demands for “humanitarian assistance” from regimes which are the embodiment of inhumane governance…although he takes a while to wander through a thicket of his own mistaken assertions.

We’re going to indulge in a fairly extensive deconstruction of his discussion, as it manages to illuminate, even when wrong, key dilemmas inherent to deciding “what is the right thing to do?” when dealing with difficult regimes, especially regimes which can fight back. Read the rest of this entry »

Kim Jong Il Dies…now what? by Chris Nelson

[The following is taken from the 19 December 2011 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

The body of DPRK leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (Photo Reuters)

Our personal take is that uncertainty, and N. Korea, unfortunately always belong in the same sentence.

The Obama Administration must focus on two immediate problems: first, the obvious strategic risks created by the uncertainties… until it’s known if designated successor Kim Jong-on will be accepted by the power elites… the US, the ROK, Japan and China need to be ready for almost anything, so they need to be talking with each other;

Second, the Administration faces the problem of putting on hold, pending clarification of the obvious questions, what had increasingly started to look like a possible resumption of bilateral negotiations as a lead-in to possible resumption of the 6 Party nuclear talks.

It HAD been planned today to announce a massive food aid deal explicitly linked to nuclear/6PT issues, not humanitarian, so look to see if that goes ahead. The explicit strategic link to food, long overdue, is significant and bears scrutiny, if it takes place, since it heralds apparent White House acceptance of the link between weapons-related promises and benefits which it had been firmly resisting to this point, based on the DPRK’s record since the Bush Administration (Syria, HEU, nuke tests, Cheonan, etc.). Read the rest of this entry »

US-NK Talks constructive, but… by Chris Nelson

[The following is taken from the 17 October 2011 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by Chris Nelson. An update by Chris was added to the bottom on 26 October. –CanKor.]

US special envoy Stephen Bosworth in Pyongyang (Photo: Reuters 2009)

US sources confirm Special Envoy Steve Bosworth will meet with his N. Korean counterpart next week in Geneva, Oct. 24-25, as a follow-up to last week’s State Visit by S. Korean president Lee Myung-bak, and consultations with President Obama and his foreign policy advisors at the NSC and State.

No official announcement from the Administration as yet, but sources here say they’ve been privately informed of the plans for Bosworth to explore the DPRK’s readiness to resume the 6 Party talks under conditions laid down by both Washington and Seoul which, some observers predict, will be partially met….thus throwing the ball back into to the US/ROK court on whether to proceed. Read the rest of this entry »

US Admiral Mullen on DPRK stability threat by Chris Nelson

[The following commentary is taken from the 14 July 2011 edition of the Nelson Report, with permission of the author. –CanKor.]

Out there in the real world, at least the version known as Asia, Adm. Mullen wrapped up his very interesting four days in China with a visit to ally S. Korea, and jumped right into the domestic ROK debate over N. Korea…saying the Kim Jong-il/Kim Jong-un succession process helped prompt last year’s DPRK sinking of the Cheonan.

U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, speaks to incoming commander of combined U.S.-South Korea forces, U.S. Army Gen. James D. Thurman during a change-of-command ceremony for the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea at a U.S. military base in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, 14 July 2011. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, speaks to incoming commander of combined U.S.-South Korea forces, U.S. Army Gen. James D. Thurman (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

Warming to a theme he’s been stressing to China since last December, Mullen spoke about “the whole provocation cycle” facing S. Korea, warning that the “threat remains very real” as the DPRK continues to improve its nuclear weapon capabilities, adding “I’m not convinced they won’t provoke again. I’ve said for a long time that the only thing predictable about N. Korea is their unpredictability”.

His conclusion: “We have a sense of urgency to essentially work on planning to deter the North from further provocations. Whether they will be deterred or not, that’s to be seen.”

So what’s Mullen up to here? Read the rest of this entry »

US reaction to European food aid by Chris Nelson

[The following item is taken from the 6 July 2011 edition of the Nelson Report, with the kind permission of the author. –CanKor.]

We are reliably informed by experts like Marc Noland at Peterson IIE that the 10-million Euro program announced by Europe over the weekend is not “fairly large”, as we suggested last night, but in fact rather modest, in comparison to previous international efforts.

Yonhap has an excellent summary of the situation on a briefing by US State Department‘s Victoria Nuland (following this introduction) to which we would add one or two bits of analysis, based on our own probings:

We are told to take with a grain of salt any claim the US is close to agreeing with the Europeans on this, unless you understand that in fact, it appears the Euro’s food is seen by the donors as “the least they could do, so they did it”, given the generally “soft” Euro humanitarianism in the face of unpleasant strategic realities. Read the rest of this entry »

Perspectives on DPRK blast against ROK President Lee by Nelson, Witt, Revere et al

[The following is taken from the 31 May 2011 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by Chris Nelson. Joel Witt is Editor of our “Partner” 38North, a project of SAIS (Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University). Evans Revere was the US State Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and former CEO of the Korea Society in the USA. –CanKor.]


The official DPRK news service, KCNA, delivered a harshly worded blast declaring that it would “never” negotiate with ROK President Lee…so we pulsed our Loyal Reader Korea Network for thoughts, and have some “on the record” responses from former PDAS Evans Revere, and former Clinton-era nuclear negotiator Joel Witt, plus a cross section of the “must be protected” experts for your consideration, below. Read the rest of this entry »

Reaction to the NK food crisis by Mitchell Reiss

[This continues the discussion on food aid published in the Nelson Report on 5 April 2011. Mitchell Reiss, President of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, was a former US State Department policy planner.]

Starting in the first term of the Bush 43 Administration, USAID director Andrew Natsios articulated the three prongs of a humanitarian relief strategy: (i) real need, (ii) more severe need than other places, and (iii) our ability to monitor the food distribution to ensure that it reaches its target audience. This was a more complete articulation of the first Reagan Doctrine that stated that “a starving child knows no politics.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comment on Hsu article by David Straub

[CanKor readers are already familiar with the article referred to in this commentary by CanKor Brain Trust member Professor Victor W. Hsu, Korean Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management & Former National Director for North Korea of World Vision International. An excerpt is provided below. To read the full article, please click here.]

South Korea’s Humanitarian Dilemma, by Victor Hsu

On March 22, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification, Lee Jong-joo announced that “there are no plans for direct government-to-government humanitarian aid” to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). But the government is “considering when and how to resume humanitarian aid provided by South Korean NGOs.” This is certainly a step in the right direction given that in recent months the Republic of Korea (ROK) government officials have had to encounter enquiries not only by their own civil society but also by other governments and various United Nations officials. Read the rest of this entry »

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