03/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Resuming the Six Party Talks

Sometimes it takes a jester to get at the truth. The other night on his late night comedy news show, Stephen Colbert took on Stephen Bosworth, President Obama's Special Representative for North Korean Policy. Colbert posed what is thought to be the conundrum at the core of all dealings with North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Il: "How do you talk to a madman?" "He is not a madman," Bosworth answered. "They are not madmen. If they look at the world in the way that they look at it, they have their own interests, and they are pursuing those interests. Now we don't happen to agree with those interests ... We are trying to change their perception of their self-interest." How you do that is, in fact, the great Korean conundrum.

In its first six months, the Obama Administration met North Korean provocations with tough words and "smart sanctions." In the later six months, the Administration responded to North Korea's conciliatory overtures with "strategic patience." But the Bosworth strategy of changing North Korea's perception of its self-interest requires both tactical withdrawal, like UN sanctions, and tactical advance, like resuming the Six Party Talks. The time may be ripe to ramp up the pressures of engagement, and orchestrate the resumption of a comprehensive peace, denuclearization and development process on the Korean Peninsula. A careful reading of North Korean diplomatic statements suggests Pyongyang is ready in earnest to resume the Six Party Talks.

Last Monday, North Korea's Foreign Ministry released an unexpected proposal for "peace talks." Cynics quickly read the worst interpretation into the document, generating a news cycle on how Pyongyang was demanding a removal of all sanctions and the conclusion of a peace treaty with the US as preconditions for returning to the Six Party Talks. In fact, the statement was carefully worded to create a face-saving way to get back to the Six Party Talks by calling for "an early start of the talks for replacing the Armistice Agreement by the peace treaty."

Pyongyang did not suggest that peace talks replace Six Party Talks. To the contrary, they explicitly offered that peace talks "may be held either at a separate forum as laid down in the September 19 [2005] Joint Statement [of the Six Party Talks] or in the framework of the six-party talks for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula like the DPRK-US talks now under way."

The initial response from Washington was to ignore the opening, and insist on the procedural priority of resuming Six Party Talks before all else. The US State Department spokesperson affirmed that, "Right now, the issue before North Korea is saying yes, coming back to the Six-Party process, and then we can begin to march down the list of issues that we have beginning with the nuclear issue."

The DPRK Foreign Ministry subsequently released a clarification. Last week's original statement ran under the title, "DPRK Proposes to Start of Peace Talks" [sic]. The clarification this week was headlined "DPRK on Reasonable Way for Sept. 19 Joint Statement" -- putting even more emphasis, in direct response to the American position, on the Six Party Talks. The second statement reiterated the original position that hostility and distrust were at the root of the nuclear problem, and therefore "concluding a peace treaty" should be "moved up in the order of action." But a separate one-sentence paragraph shouts out from the middle of the statement: "The DPRK is not opposed to the six-party talks and has no ground whatsoever to delay them."

Asked about the second statement, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell again insisted Six Party Talks come before all else. "We think that the appropriate next step is for North Korea to return to the Six-Party Talks and to resume deliberations in this context ... So what we're looking for really is the return to Six-Party Talks, and we think that's the best approach to deal with all these issues."

Why ignore the North Korean overture? The Obama Administration's North Korea team has been justly commended for carefully coordinating with Seoul and Tokyo, in a conscientious effort to avoid intra-ally frictions and misunderstandings in North Korea policy. The State Department may be buying time in order to coordinate a tactical advance in response to North Korea's call for peace talks. South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator is meeting with Campbell, Bosworth and others in Washington this week, and Campbell in turn flies to Seoul and Tokyo next week. The timing is auspicious.

The North Koreans have in effect said they are ready to resume the Six Party Talks, but that they want greater priority placed on negotiations over a "permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula" within that framework. It is in the interests of the United States to commence serious discussions toward that end as well. The US should stand by the self-evident fact that South Korea has a central role to play in such deliberations (the North Korean statement placed its typical emphasis on the US as its prime adversary, but, significantly, did not explicitly exclude South Korea from its proposed peace talks). Washington should also make it very clear that "concluding" a peace treaty does not precede denuclearization; rather, the two must happen in tandem. But with those and a few other caveats, the US can safely call Pyongyang's bluff on this one, affirm the importance of peace talks within the Six Party Talks framework, and use them as a subterfuge for resuming the framework as a whole.

North Korea will not change its perception of its self-interest on its own, and sanctions will not take us very far toward that end either. The Bosworth strategy is a good one, but will require sustained and comprehensive engagement, on multiple levels, to be executed.