Pyongyang gets a piece of US's mind
By Donald Kirk
NEW YORK - It was as though the voices of the North Korean Foreign Ministry and
the United States State Department were reverberating in an echo chamber with
no real awareness of the messages that each side was conveying.
The anonymous North Korean "spokesman" was again sounding off about a Korean
War peace treaty while a US envoy talked tough about the North's human-rights
No sooner had North Korea come out with a deceptively conciliatory plea calling
for talks for a treaty to replace the
armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 than the US human-rights envoy,
Robert King, said that US relations with North Korea depended on the North's
improving its "appalling" human-rights record.
The question after both sides had done making statements was whether the timing
was deliberate, whether King, visiting Seoul, came out with his denunciation of
North Korean human-rights abuses after having read the North Korean statement.
Or did North Korea time the issuance of its call for negotiations on a peace
treaty to coincide with King's mission to Seoul - and that of the United
Nations rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Vitit Muntarbhorn?
Regardless of the sequence, the US State Department lost no time denouncing the
North Korean proposal as essentially nothing new, a longstanding element of
North Korean policy that had to be swatted away like an annoying insect that
persisted in returning to sting again. It was in that vein that the top State
Department spokesman, Philip Crowley, brushed off the North Korean proposal,
making it clear nothing would happen without action by the North on its
"dreadful human-rights record".
Over at the White House, President Barack Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs,
appeared just as unrelenting, saying that the "North Koreans are well aware of
what they need to do, to come back to six-party talks" on giving up their
nuclear weapons, and "give up the idea of a nuclear state on the peninsula".
The sharpness of the rebuff from Washington gave the impression that US policy
is reverting somehow to the supposed "hard line" of the early years of the
presidency of Obama's predecessor, George W Bush. At the least, said Gibbs,
North Korea had to honor agreements reached in the later Bush years when the
North in 2005 signed off in principle on abandoning its nuclear weapons in
exchange for aid and recognition - and then in 2007 when the North assented to
specific details on getting rid of its nukes.
"If they're willing to live up to those obligations, then we will make progress
in those talks," said Gibbs."
The exchange of statements from both sides left the clear impression that
neither was about to budge despite what the US envoy on North Korea, Stephen
Bosworth, has often characterized as "useful" and "candid" talks with North
Korean diplomats during his trip to Pyongyang last month.
One had to wonder, however, if Bosworth had bothered to discuss his mission to
Pyongyang with King, before King flew to Seoul to meet with South Korean
officials - and also with the United Nations rapporteur, Muntarbhorn.
Were the two American envoys working at cross-purposes, or coordinating in a
one-two punch, a good-guy, bad-guy combo in which Bosworth held high the candle
of hope while King snuffed out the flame in language calculated to infuriate
the North Koreans? In the face of North Korea's routine, angry denial of
charges of public executions, torture and imprisonment of thousands of its
citizens in a vast gulag system, King said that "improved relations" between
the US and North Korea would "have to involve greater respect for human rights
by North Korea".
North Korea by now, however, holds another ace - that is, the American
Christian missionary, Robert Park, son of Korean parents, who crossed the
frozen Tumen River border with China into North Korea on Christmas Eve bearing
a message of "peace and goodwill" for North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il. King
acknowledged that the US had yet to learn, while calling for his release, where
Park is being held or how he's being treated.
North Korean strategists for their part had to have known full well that only
the gullible foreign media, not the US State Department, would be easily taken
in by talk of a peace treaty that Washington has spurned for years.
Thus it was no doubt with an eye for maximum propaganda impact that Pyongyang's
Korean Central News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying a
peace treaty would "help terminate the hostile relation" between North Korea
and the US and "and positively promote the denuclearization of the Korean
Peninsula at a rapid tempo". The North Korean statement said it was "essential
to conclude a peace treaty for terminating the state of war" if "confidence is
to be built" with the US.
The statement left no doubt that North Korea places higher priority on
negotiating a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War than on returning to
six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008. The North Korean
Foreign Ministry spokesman, always anonymous, said the signatories of the
Korean War armistice should negotiate a treaty either in a separate set of
talks or during six-party talks.
Either way, China, North Korea's staunch ally during the Korean War, would play
a leading role as host to six-party talks. Japan and Russia, as
non-participants in the Korean War armistice but participants on six-party
talks, would remain on the sidelines.
The reference to "signatories", however, left open the question of whether
North Korea's call for a peace treaty is part of an elaborate long-term effort
to bypass South Korea The US, China and North Korea signed the Korean War
armistice in July 1953, but South Korea's Korean War president, Rhee Syngman,
refused. He believed the armistice would mean permanent division of the Korean
Peninsula between North and South.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman, as quoted by the North's Korean
Central News Agency, also came out with another demand that is sure to
complicate talks on its nuclear program. The statement said the UN must do away
with sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after the North's missile
test on April 5 and then strengthened in June after its nuclear test on May 25.
Six-party talks "remain blocked by the barrier of distrust called sanctions",
said the North Korean statement.
Considering that sanctions appear to have been crucial to persuading North
Korea to soften its statements in recent weeks, no one sees any chance of the
UN Security Council lifting them in the near future. Certainly the US, pressing
for the sanctions' enforcement by all UN members, is not about to decide they
have already served their purpose.
The US rejection of talks on a Korean War peace treaty was definitely good news
for South Korean officials, so much so that the two appeared to have been
coordinating on a response. Or, as a South Korean Foreign Ministry official
told Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, "What they proposed is somewhat
different from our position on such talks."
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, talking to Yonhap, viewed the
proposal for a peace treaty as unrealistic. "That's like saying it will never
give up its nuclear programs," he said, "or it is a delaying tactic?"