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Calling In the Formers

Can a team of retired American diplomats stop North Koreas nuclear program?


North Koreas top nuclear negotiator will sit down with a team of
former American diplomats in an undisclosed venue in Singapore this weekend to discuss one
of the worlds most complex and dangerous problems: what to do about Pyongyangs everexpanding nuclear weapons program.
Like James Franco and Seth Rogen in this winters farcical comedy The Interview, these
Americans do not represent the U.S. government, nor do they speak on behalf of the Obama
administration. Nevertheless, they are on a mission to glean as much as possible from the

reclusive Hermit Kingdom at a time when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is ruthlessly
consolidating power inside his government and threatening a second Korean War over this
weeks U.S. military exercise with South Korea.
The U.S. negotiating team, which includes Barack Obamas former North Korea envoy Stephen
Bosworth and George W. Bushs former nuclear negotiator Joseph DeTrani, will meet with Ri
Yong-ho, the DPRKs top nuclear negotiator, and Jang Il-hun, the deputy ambassador to the
United Nations.
The State Department told Foreign Policy it has no involvement in the two days of meetings,
but the Americans will debrief the administration after the sensitive discussions take place.
Given the seniority of the North Korean officials participating in the talks and the unparalleled
reclusiveness of Kims regime in recent months, the intelligence value could be significant
especially as Washington tries to see a way past the current impasse with Pyongyang.
Listening to the North Koreans in this environment can reveal their future game plan, said
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And with
the Obama administrations total lack of diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, the retired diplomats
are the only current link to the regime.
Outsiders doubt that anyone, much less a team of former diplomats in Singapore, can untangle
the riddle that is North Korea. But this weekends delegation remains optimistic that progress
can be made on the nuclear issue.
North Koreans have been remarkably forthcoming about their willingness to dismantle their
nuclear program lock stock and barrel, said Tony Namkung, one of the principal negotiators
joining Bosworth and DeTrani. The problem of courses, as is always the case in diplomacy, is
that both sides to a dispute want the other side to move first.
One participant in Sundays talk, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the usefulness of
the discussions depends on what the Obama administration does with the intelligence. We
cant speak for the U.S. government, but we can explore things, said the negotiator. There
have been occasions when we brought stuff back thats useful, but its only really useful when
U.S. officials act on it.
Until the brazen hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment in November, the worlds most closed
society had largely faded from the global agenda thanks to the spate of crises in the Middle
East and Eastern Europe. However, the recent tiff over Americas joint two-day naval drill in
South Koreas east coast is reviving fears of a new flare up on the peninsula and giving new
importance to Sundays so-called Track 2 negotiations (a bureaucratic term referring to
nongovernmental diplomacy).
Despite the Norths ability to strike South Koreas capital with conventional weapons or
orchestrate a cyber attack against the U.S., what security experts fear most is the regime
unleashing a nuclear bomb either by accident or in a fit of a rage.

The North has carried out three nuclear tests, the most recent in February 2013, and is under
sanction by the U.N. for flouting international regulations prohibiting the detonation of atomic
devices in pursuit of nuclear weaponry.
Last weekend, North Korea said it would suspend upcoming nuclear tests if Washington agreed
to cancel its annual military exercises on Thursday, but the U.S. rejected that offer and went
ahead with the marine exercises this week involving two U.S. Aegis destroyers and three South
Korean assets: The 3,200-ton Aegis destroyer, a P-3C plane and a submarine.
The challenge for Bosworth and DeTrani whose delegation also includes North Korea hands
Leon Sigal, a director at the Social Science Research Council, and Namkung is to achieve
something that decades of Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to do: Find a
diplomatic means of ending North Koreas nuclear program.
Since 2003, the primary method for achieving this has been through six-party denuclearization
talks involving China, the U.S., North and South Korea, Russia and Japan. But over the years,
those talks have been repeatedly upended by Pyongyangs recurrent nuclear and missile tests,
and other provocative actions.
After getting burned in the past, the U.S. is reluctant to kickstart those six-party talks without
Pyongyang first honoring past commitments and making a significant show of good will. For
its part, Pyongyang says the United States has reneged on its own promises, such as helping
provide the impoverished country with non-nuclear power plants.
Either way, peninsula watchers say significant and disturbing developments have occurred in
Pyongyang since the groups last Track 2 discussion in October 2013, raising the stakes of this
latest effort.
According to Siegfried Hecker, a highly-regarded nuclear expert who has visited North Korea
several times, Kims regime has become increasingly convinced that its survival depends on its
nuclear arsenal and that the door is quickly closing on the Western dream of creating a nuclearfree North Korea. The George W. Bush administration failed miserably and, to date, the
Obama administration has done as badly, Hecker wrote last week in theBulletin of the Atomic
For those who believe more engagement with the North could improve the current impasse,
kickstarting the six-party talks is crucial. But that would require the U.S. easing its conditions
for the resumption of negotiations.
For his part, Namkung said he has detected a softening in the U.S. position. There is a little
more flexibility than at the time of the breakdown of the Leap Day talks, he said, referring to
the failed February 2012 negotiations.
This is not Namkungs first rodeo. Since the early 90s, the self-proclaimed consultant and
independent scholar has been shepherding senior U.S. officials to the Hermit Kingdom

through good times and bad.

Some of his most high-profile missions include the 2013 visit to Pyongyang of Google
Chairman Eric Schmidt and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and the trip to Pyongyang
of Associated Press Vice President John Daniszewski that same year for the first anniversary of
the news agencyscontroversial Pyongyang bureau.
Namkungs ability to penetrate Pyongyangs opaque bureaucracy makes him a highly sought
after interlocutor and a target for critics who say hes too close to the regime. The general
impression is that Im not at all critical of the North Korean regime, he told the Christian
Science Monitor in 2013. On the contrary, my purpose is to act as a back channel, he said.
Its like pulling teeth.
Bosworth and Segal, two North Korea hands with ties to Democrats, favor engagement with
North Korea acknowledging that neither Bushs sanctions-intensive approach nor Obamas
strategic patience strategy, which relied on freezing out Pyongyang in the absence of positive
behavior, succeeded in slowing down the Norths development of nuclear weapons.
DeTrani, meanwhile, has a more hawkish reputation through his work under the Bush
administration. In 2006, he worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the
counterproliferation center. Before that, he served as special envoy for Six-Party Talks with
North Korea and as U.S. Representative to the North Korea Energy Development Organization.
Some outsiders say DeTrani brings a bipartisan sheen to a team that leans more toward
engagement with the North than many in Washingtons foreign policy community.
Certainly, Ambassador DeTrani adds weight to the delegation, said Jae H. Ku, director of the
U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins. But I think a delegation of this makeup has limitations.
Anything Sigal and Namkung bring back to the policy community will be viewed with much
skepticism. Why not add a flame thrower to the mix? Someone who is there to read them the
Riot Act so to speak. Someone who is known to be a little more aggressive on North Korea.
Snyder, the CFR expert, said the talks have at times provided valuable information to the
Obama administration. He noted that Track 2 discussions carried out in 2012 by Joel Wit, a
Korea expert at Columbia University, offered a prescient assessment of the Norths illicit
intentions in the run-up to its brazen nuclear test in February 2013. In my view, its advisable
for the U.S. government to be familiar with the debrief from the conversation and to pick up
any clues that might point to whats coming, said Snyder.
Whatever comes of the talks, you can be sure the Obama administration will be following up to
read the tea leaves in Pyongyangs latest overtures.
There is no U.S. government involvement in this event, a State Department official told FP.
Of course, we frequently engage with the think-tank and academic community on DPRK
issues and will continue to do so.

Colum Lynch contributed to this report.