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North Korea talks: Baby steps in a big, complex picture

High-level officials from North and South Korea are meeting again Monday -- a follow-up to last week's diplomatic breakthrough.

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Joshua Berlinger (CNN)
(CNN) — High-level officials from North and South Korea are meeting again Monday -- a follow-up to last week's diplomatic breakthrough.

They come after a year of threats, saber-rattling and North Korean weapons testing but how do these talks differ from what's come before?

There have been numerous attempts at finding a diplomatic solution to stymie Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions -- the Agreed Framework of the 1990s and the six-party talks of the 2000s -- both ended in failure, creating a climate of mistrust when it comes to negotiations. The Intra-Korean meetings of 2000 and 2007 involved the leaders of both countries at each time but yielded little long-term gains.

Last week's talks and the follow-up, are baby steps in the big picture, analysts say and it's unclear whether they'll eventually help both sides walk toward a solution.

"The next couple months are going to be critical and whether we go down the path of negotiation or we go down the path of further provocation depends on a couple different factors, but it will depend on how these inter-Korean talks go first," said Jean Lee, a former Pyongyang bureau chief for The Associated Press and current global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"If anyone believes this is going to be simple, they should think again," she said.

On the road again?

The discussions last week did produce some tangible results, including North Korea's agreeement to attend the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea and the opening of a military-to-military hotline.

Those gains are noteworthy -- though there's still time for things to go wrong ahead of the Games -- but every country with a hand in the negotiations or stake in them has been clear that the end goal of any diplomatic efforts is the denuclearization of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the country is officially known.

But even the mention of Pyongyang's nuclear program strongly displeased North Korea country's top negotiator, according to a pool report following the meeting.

"Nobody is going into these new negotiations blindly. You have to build on the mistakes you made in the past and learn from those mistakes," Lee said. "The savviest thing for the negotiators would be to really study what happened in post '94 and with the six-party talks and make sure that they go into any potential negotiations armed with that experience."

The Agreed Framework of 1994 was the first attempt to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program diplomatically. The agreement came after North Korea announced it planned to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a sign it intended to develop nuclear weapons. The situation got so tense that the administration of then-US President Bill Clinton was seriously considering striking some of North Korea's nuclear facilities. After the tense standoff, an agreement was reached in which the US would supply Pyongyang with nuclear proliferation-resistant reactors and fuel shipments if North Korea stopped developing weapons.

The Agreed Framework collapsed after US intelligence discovered possible attempts by the North Koreans to enrich uranium -- a potential pathway to a nuclear weapon. Critics of the administration of George W. Bush contend that hawks surrounding the President were looking for an excuse to opt out of the agreement.

Pyongyang also accused Washington of failing to uphold its end of the bargain due to delays in supplying North Korea with the reactors and fuel.

Another attempt in the 2000s, the six-party talks, fell apart after a series of back-and-forth negotiations. Those negotiations were much larger, including South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

The sides appeared close to a breakthrough in 2005, centered around an agreement that consisted of the following points, among other things:

North Korea commits to abandoning nuclear weapons and existing program, return to the NPT and accept international inspections. In return, the other members of the six-party talks right to peacefully use nuclear energy and would discuss providing the Kim Jong Il regime with a light water nuclear reactor "at an appropriate time."

But things quickly soured. Divisions about the "appropriate time," coupled with Pyongyang's anger at US sanctions that froze about $25 million North Korean funds stashed in Macau appeared to spell the end of the talks. North Korea responded by test-firing a handful of missiles. The regime detonated its first nuclear weapon in October 2006.

When Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, North Korea rapidly increased the pace at which it tested nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, all while communication between the two sides slowed down.


To understand what's next in the process, it's important to look at the conditions that allowed both sides to come to the table.

In his New Year's address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared to extend an olive branch to his counterpart in the South, Moon Jae-in, centered around the Olympics.

It proved a natural starting point for negotiations -- a good first step, and a fairly easy one, says Lee.

"Both sides have the same interest here. North Koreans definitely want to participate in the Olympics, and the South Koreans want them to participate in the Olympics," she said.

A key sticking point was likely to be annual military drills the US and South Korea hold in the spring. Tensions between North Korea and the United States usually flare due to the exercises. Pyongyang believes these are preparation for an eventual invasion of North Korea, a charge the US denies.

The Trump administration agreed to postpone the exercises at South Korea's request, which observers speculate was done to ensure the Winter Games go smoothly.

The drills have been canceled in years past, but if they go on after the Olympics end, the situation could revert back to square one if the drills go on as in years previous.

"If the talks are not expanded to include a freeze on missile tests or the exercises are not delayed further, then come April we're going to be back in a very dangerous situation," said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

China and Russia have backed what's called a "freeze-for-freeze" proposal, in which the United States and South Korea stops its military drills and North Korea halts its missile testing.

But both North Korea and the United States have so far rejected the idea. Washington contends its not an apples-to-apples comparison, as military drills are lawful while North Korea's missile tests are banned under international law. Pyongyang said in October it will not negotiate with the Trump administration until they've sent "a clear message that the DPRK has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States."

Timeline for the new year

The Olympics may be South Korea's biggest event in 2018, but North Korea has an important occasion of its own this year: the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK is in September.

Analysts say that the current negotiations with South Korea could be the basis of a quid-pro-quo: if Pyongyang may offer not to mess with the Winter Games in the hopes that Seoul won't interrupt North Korea's big celebration.

"Kim Jong Un is going to want to do something big," Lee said. "And it could either be some sort of agreement with the United States, or if things are not going his way, it could go the opposite direction."

Though Kim declared in his New Year's address that North Korea's nuclear deterrent capabilities are "complete," experts believe there are more tests Pyongyang would like to conduct.

The Kim regime is believed to be developing more mobile, solid-fueled missiles (the intercontinental ballistic missiles tested in 2017 used less stable and more corrosive liquid fuel), that will likely test flights. In September, The country's foreign minister floated the possibility that the country would conduct an atmospheric nuclear test -- something Mount at FAS called "wildly destabilizing."

"There's an opening here. We know what North Korea's timeline is, now we have to make sure all the partners take advantage of it," said Lee.

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