With Tensions Still High Over N. Korea, U.S.-China to Meet

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With Tensions Still High Over N. Korea, U.S.-China to Meet

With all sides looking to end the recent crisis, pieces are falling into place for renewed talks.

Both China and U.S. officials will be crossing the Pacific over the next coming days to hold talks with their counterparts on how to move forward on North Korea. At this point it appears both countries hope to restart negotiations with Pyongyang possibly through the six-party talks format.

On Friday China’s Foreign Ministry announced that the country’s special envoy for North Korea, Wu Dawei, will travel to Washington, DC to hold consultations with his U.S. counterpart, Glyn T. Davies, the State Department’s special envoy on North Korea.

According to the New York Times, Wu has previous served as the chairman of the six party talks that include China, Russia, the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. His trip to Washington comes at the invitation of Davies Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday, the New York Times reported.

At roughly the same time Wu is traveling to the United States for consultations, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey will be in China meeting with their counterparts. Neither official is traveling to China alone and are almost certain to discuss issues other than North Korea while in China. Still, the Korea crisis is certain to be on the agenda as all parties seek to a path towards restarting negotiations.

General Dempsey leaves later today for the region with the first stop in South Korea. From there he will head to China for four days before moving on to Japan. The primary purpose of Dempsey’s time in China is to expand mil-to-mil ties with the PLA. To that end Foreign Policy’s National Security site reports that the general’s time will be spent mainly with General Fang Fenghui, chief of the PLA’s general staff.

Meanwhile, the State Department has announced that Deputy Secretary Burns will leave for a nearly weeklong visit to Asia on Tuesday that will include a stop in China on Wednesday and Thursday to “meet with senior Chinese officials to discuss bilateral, regional, and global issues of mutual concern.” Like Dempsey, Burns will also travel to Japan and South Korea during this trip and it therefore seems almost certain that North Korea and the six-party talks will figure front and center of these discussions.

Throughout the course of the week the pieces have begun falling in place for a renewed effort at negotiations. Starting with Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Asia last weekend, the U.S. has begun retreating from its hardline stance on restarting negotiations with North Korea. Although Kerry has insisted Washington must see some concrete action towards denuclearization before talks can begin, the general tone used suggests that the administration is ready to abandon its policy of “strategic patience,” once again validating North Korea’s supposedly irrational behavior.

For its own part, Pyongyang appeared to be remain somewhat internally divided on the subject of negotiations with three bodies this week releasing different statements responding to the U.S. overtures in three successive days, each one seemingly trumping the one that came before it. The most recent one came from the National Defense Commission, the highest military body in a country that puts the military first, and therefore can be seen as the most authoritative statement from Pyongyang at this point. Much like the U.S. with denuclearization, North Korea makes three (mostly long-standing) demands on the U.S. for restarting talks, which it knows Washington and its allies will never accept.

Still, there appears to leave enough ambiguity in these demands for Pyongyang to later claim they have been met. For instance, it calls on the U.S. and South Korea to give “formal assurances before the world that they would not stage again such nuclear war drills to threaten or blackmail the DPRK.” The annual ROK-U.S. military drill is scheduled to wrap up later this month and North Korea will likely portray its end as the two countries’ submitting to its demand.

On paper there is almost no overlap in the sides’ positions that would indicate a diplomatic agreement is even possible. In reality, however, all parties appear to be interested in dialing down tensions and getting past this most recent crisis.

To its credit this has been China’s position all along and a Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated it again during a press conference on Friday. South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye has also continued to maintain that she is ready to soften Seoul’s policy towards the North if the latter tones down its bellicose rhetoric and enters into talks.

The near certainty of a resumption of aid from the South is likely to be enough of an incentive for Kim Jong-un to send an envoy to any negotiations as the young leader has already demobilized the population and signaled that he’s ready to return his focus to trying to improve the country’s dismal economy (particularly light industry).

North Korean diplomats will no doubt be seeking to use the talks to also get the U.S. and possibly Japan to join Seoul in resuming their “tribute” to the Kim-family regime. It’s doubtful that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will agree to this given the continued domestic sensitivities over North Korea’s past kidnapping of Japanese citizens.

The North may have better luck with the U.S. but even if the Obama administration holds a tough line Kim Jong-un is better off ending the crisis having won South Korean aid that would have been forthcoming regardless— as well as possibly increased aid from China for its willingness to dial down tensions—than continuing to escalate tensions, which is unlikely to yield a better deal at this point.