Timing, the old adage goes, is everything, and in attempting to peel back the thick layer of mystery surrounding North Korea’s nuclear intentions, the timing of its decision to follow through on its long-standing invite for a top United Nations official to visit may offer insight into a renewed diplomatic push or mediator role for the U.N., experts say.
Pyongyang formally extended the invitation to Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N.’s political chief — and America’s highest-ranking national in the U.N. Secretariat — on Nov. 30, just a day after successfully testing its most powerful long-range missile and declaring its quest for nuclear weapons effectively complete.
That invitation had been informally delivered to Feltman during the annual gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly in September, according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, presumably by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who had attended the session.
Feltmen met with North Korea’s vice foreign minister on Wednesday, the first full day of a four-day trip to Pyongyang, media reports said. It was not immediately clear what Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, discussed with Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk.
Gary Samore, former President Barack Obama’s onetime principal adviser on arms control and nuclear proliferation, said the invitation and its timing showed that North Korea could be changing gears after its Nov. 29 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“I think that Ambassador Feltman’s trip to Pyongyang is another indication that Kim Jong Un may have decided to shift back to diplomacy now that he has declared that North Korea has completed its nuclear objectives,” said Samore, who is currently executive director for research at the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“Pyongyang may use Feltman’s visit to send a message to Washington that it is prepared to resume bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks on the nuclear issue,” he said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The rare visit, which began Tuesday and runs through Saturday, was to include a “wide-ranging” discussion on policy issues “of mutual interest and concern,” according to Dujarric.
And although little may publicly emerge from these discussions, they could lay the groundwork for future talks between the U.S. and North Korea, according to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
Feltman’s visit “is a positive step that could potentially improve the chances for a meaningful direct dialogue between senior North Koreans and senior U.S. officials and/or others,” Kimball said.
On Tuesday in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Feltman was not traveling on behalf of the U.S. government. “And he’s not traveling — I want to make this clear — with any kind of message from the U.S. government. … He’s going on behalf of the U.N., not the U.S. government,” she said at a news briefing.
Nauert said Washington remains open to talks if North Korea shows it is serious about denuclearization, but added, “The activities they have been engaged in recently have shown that they are not interested, that they are not serious about sitting down and having conversations.”
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has retained the long-standing policy under Obama that denuclearization remains a precondition for talks.
The White House has also heaped what it calls “maximum pressure” on the North as part of its attempts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. And while there have been successes, including the toughest sanctions to date, the measures are unlikely in the near term to slow the North in its quest to build a nuclear-tipped missile that can reliably hit the whole of the United States.
Indeed, the dizzying pace of Pyongyang’s breakthroughs in its missile and nuclear programs this year have at times left Washington, Tokyo and Seoul struggling to keep up, observers say.
In addition to three tests of ICBMs, the North in September detonated what it said was a hydrogen bomb — its most powerful blast to date — and has threatened to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.
The North calls its nuclear weapons defensive in nature, a measure of security against the U.S., which it views as hell-bent on invasion and regime change. Pyongyang has said Washington needs to roll back its “hostile policy” toward the country before there can be talks.
But with leader Kim Jong Un’s declaration last week that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” the U.S. may now be forced to answer a question it has appeared to avoid: Is it time to accept that Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear arms, and should it work toward a deal to arrest its arsenal’s growth?
Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, said that while denuclearization “should still be our long-term goal … we need to focus first on halting further missile and nuclear tests and agreeing to steps and contacts that can reduce the risk of miscalculation and catastrophic war.”
He said that although North Korea was “clearly willing to engage in unconditional talks” earlier this year, the Trump administration was not.
“The message from the Trump administration — until a few weeks ago — was that more pressure was needed to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and that it was not time for talks.”
This sentiment — echoed in Tokyo by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a strong backer of Trump’s approach of “maximum pressure” — may, however, be waning as options short of military action dwindle.
Responding to last week’s ICBM launch, the U.S., for its part, clarified its position that it is open to talks with North Korea.
“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the time. “The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”
Kimball said that although the North has not yet responded to this overture, “Feltman, an experienced diplomat, could, conceivably, be helpful in setting up a sustained and structured process for further negotiations on issues of mutual concern.”
Critics, however, say Feltman will likely be dealing with a recalcitrant North Korea, primed after the string of nuclear and missile successes.
“Mr. Feltman can only do his job, which is to convey to the U.S. and the world what his North Korean hosts tell him,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“I’d say Mr. Feltman’s pilgrimage to Pyongyang is a prelude to another major provocation,” Lee said. “Even in the wake of the next big provocation, the central message Mr. Feltman will convey to the U.S. and the world upon returning to New York will be: ‘We must make concessions.’
“But this time there will be a slight, ominous variation: ‘North Korea insists its nukes are there to stay, so we have to de-escalate and deal with North Korea as it is: a nuclear state.’ “