Interview: Syracuse Talks Show North Korea Wants to 'Engage the World in a New Way'

This undated picture, released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on March 10, 2012 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving his hand on a naval vessel as he inspects Korean People's Army Navy Unit 123 honored with the title of O Jung Hup-led Seventh Regiment at undisclosed place in North Korea. (KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

Asia Society Associate Fellow Charles K. Armstrong, a Korean Studies Professor at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950 - 1990, said a security conference in Syracuse attended by a North Korea nuclear envoy showed the country is continuing to implement, and even accelerating negotiation efforts put in motion before the death of Kim Jong Il in December. The talks, which Armstrong attended, came shortly after the North Korean government agreed to halt its nuclear program in exchange for food aid from the U.S., widely seen as the most substantive step in negotiations since North Korea pulled out of six-party talks regarding its nuclear program in 2009.

Asia Blog spoke to Armstrong by telephone about the conference.

What was the nature and focus of the Syracuse security conference talks?

The talks were an opportunity for a variety of people to express their opinions — not only Americans and North Koreans, but people from Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, Germany, and Mongolia. The discussions were wide ranging, very friendly, and very frank.

A number of people brought up the potential for the six-party talks to evolve into a more long term regional security mechanism. The six-party talks, everyone agreed, were a good format for now, but a number of people — particularly on the North Korean side — said the harder problem was to get the U.S. and North Korea to speak separately, or as a sidebar to the six-party talks, to work out problems.

Charles Armstrong
Charles Armstrong

What revelations, if any, came out of the discussions?

The most important input was from the North Korean side, who said that the U.S. had to change its attitude to North Korea. That was nothing we hadn't heard before, but I think the extent of this as expressed in this meeting was somewhat surprising. They were very enthusiastic that they wanted to have a much more positive relationship with the U.S., which was certainly the most hopeful message we've heard from Pyongyang for the past three years or so.

It seems to me that the new leadership from Pyongyang is showing that they are really at a stage where they want to engage the world in a new way, and I think it's really in the interest of the U.S. and the other Asian partners to take advantage of this moment.

What are the two sides looking for with negotiations?

What the U.S. is most concerned about is whether or not the North Koreans will take the necessary next steps to fulfill their agreements made in Beijing, such as allowing international inspectors in, verifiably decreasing and beginning to dismantle their nuclear program, stopping missile tests, and so forth.

For the North Koreans the nuclear issue is the product of their security situation. They say that they have developed nuclear capabilities to combat what they have called a hostile U.S. policy and to overcome a vulnerable position in Northeast Asia. So the question is where do we go from here and how do we resolve these issues to the satisfaction of all concerned parties?

One theme that came out from several of the sides involved in the discussions was the value of a step-by-step, action-for-action approach, that is to say simultaneity in what both sides do rather than one side completely giving in and then the other making a move.

What do you believe is causing North Korea's renewed efforts to negotiate? Is it the death of Kim Jong Il, or perhaps the uprisings in the Middle East and reform efforts in Burma?

We have to keep in mind that these initiatives began before the death of Kim Jong Il. And though it's probably the case that the events in the Middle East and especially in Burma have had an impact on the thinking of North Korea officials, they wouldn't say that directly.

What's surprising in these efforts is that this momentum has continued after the death of Kim Jong Il and the desire of the regime to continue these initiatives has accelerated. One might have expected a hiatus after Kim Jong Il's death as the country went through a period of mourning and transition, but that really hasn't happened.

How much power do you think Kim Jong Un wields and how involved is he in these negotiation efforts?

I think it's the people that were working with his father who are pushing these efforts. I think Kim Jong Un is still a long way from having complete power in the country. Right now, he's still in a transition process as he consolidates his own personal power base.

I also think there's also a sense of urgency for the North Koreans to see progress as they get closer to celebrations around the 100-year-anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. They want to have a breakthrough. They want to gain something significant in these talks with the U.S. and they're continuing to push on this.

What signs of progress will you be watching for in terms of these negotiations?

There will be more talks coming up, but I think that now we need to look for action on the part of North Korea and on the part of the U.S. We'll see if North Korea demonstrates it really is freezing its nuclear program and if it will allow in inspectors. We'll see if the U.S. carries out some relaxation of sanctions in the near future. And finally, of course, we'll see if the six-party talks reconvene.

About the Author

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Alex Ortolani is Asia Society’s Senior Media and Content Officer.