North Korea has nuclear weapons and apparently wants more. The United States says it can stand for neither. And yet, the nuclear-armed dictatorship and the world’s superpower apparently aren’t talking to each other to resolve the standoff.
The last session of the Six-Party Talks, the official disarmament negotiations that also include South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, was held in late 2008. Sporadic diplomatic overtures since then have ultimately amounted to little. In 2012, the U.S. agreed to resume food aid to the North in return for a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. But the widely hailed “Leap Day Deal” fell apart just weeks later when the North announced its intention to launch a satellite, a move slammed by Washington as a pretext for honing ballistic missile technology. Most recently, Pyongyang slammed the brakes on any prospects for talks by preemptively ruling out a nuclear deal similar to that signed by Iran.
Apparently stung, the Obama administration has fallen back on “strategic patience” – political jargon for ignoring the North until it demonstrates seriousness about denuclearization.
Into this vacuum have rushed private citizens – typically academics and former U.S. government officials – eager to engage with reclusive Pyongyang. More than simple citizen diplomacy, or “Track II” engagement, such initiatives involve members of the North Korean government (in acknowledgment of this distinction, “Track II” is sometimes substituted for “Track I1/2.” In other instances, the terms are used interchangeably).
Track I1/2 and Track II efforts claim ambitious goals, from negotiating an “end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” as per the Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC), to seeking “a peaceful resolution of the problems confronting the Korean Peninsula,” the expressed aim of the Carnegie Corporation.
Ask for tangible achievements, and different observers will give you conflicting answers
But ask for tangible achievements, and different observers will give you conflicting answers. To some critics, there is little to show for all the work of the citizen engagers. Others still query the transparency of the initiatives, or raise questions about the proper role of private individuals in international diplomacy. In a realm where secrecy often prevails, thorough analysis of the work of the citizen diplomats has remained difficult to carry out and hard to come by.
PLAYERS AND PAYERS
A relatively small group of recurring faces dominates the Track I1/2 /II arena. Usually, participants are affiliated with, or invited by, a think tank or academic institution with either an interest in North Korea or nonproliferation, or both.
A typical such event was held in January in Singapore, where four private U.S citizens met senior members of the North Korean government at a local hotel.
Like so often, North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, a conundrum that has for so long defied resolution through official channels, brought the citizen engagers together.
The talks largely revolved around conditions the U.S. has put in place for the resumption of long-stalled denuclearization talks, participant Joseph DeTrani said.
“The core issues are the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – I emphasize peninsula – and getting back to the … 2005 Joint Statement, which was an element that spoke to not only comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization but also security assurances for the North,” DeTrani, a former U.S. government negotiator on North Korean denuclearization, told NK News.
The group, consisting of three former U.S government officials and a longtime political adviser, discussed denuclearization and other matters for two days, following up from a previous meeting in London, held in 2013.
The gathering was typical of the unofficial diplomacy that has come to fill the void created by the virtual absence of official dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea in recent years.
In the case of the Singapore gathering, the organizer was the New York-based SSRC, whose Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project is one of the most active in the area.
The initiative, led by North Korea scholar and former State Department official Leon Sigal, is tasked with forming “a cooperative security community in Northeast Asia.”
Other prominent organizations include the Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), part of the University of California, San Diego; the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA); the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK); and the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP).
In Singapore, Sigal and DeTrani were joined on the U.S. side by Stephen Bosworth, former United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy, and Tony Namkung, an independent scholar and consultant with an almost three-decade-long history of engaging with the North. Sigal did not respond to repeated requests for comment by NK News, while Namkung declined to be interviewed.
Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho headed the delegation from Pyongyang.
The choice of participants on the North Korean side is generally predictable, according to DeTrani.
DeTrani described Ri, a former ambassador to the United States, as “articulate,” “very sophisticated,” “very smart” and “fluent in English.”
“As he puts it, he’s the designated senior official for Track IIs and Track I.5s with the Americans,” he said.
A crucial influence on who joins the ‘club’ are the sources of funding
DeTrani said that Ri was joined by the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s deputy director of U.S. affairs and the North Korean representative in New York, as well as two aides.
Western participants tend to be drawn from a familiar, if deeper, pool.
“I don’t want to call them separate clubs but there does tend to be a certain element of association and participation where not dissimilar groups of participants will show at these meetings,” said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who accompanied Sigal and Bosworth on a trip to North Korea in 2009.
A crucial influence on who joins the club are the sources of funding.
Because think tanks are not required to disclose their donors or spending under U.S. law, it is impossible to grasp exactly what is spent on unofficial diplomacy with North Korea. NCNK executive director Keith Luse said that it had not spent any money on such activities in the year that he’d been with the group, and that he was not aware of past events. The IGCC and NCAFP both failed to respond to requests about Track I1/2/ II spending.
While these groups may operate in considerable secrecy, private foundations that bankroll their activities are obligated to disclose their grants. One of the most prominent is the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the philanthropic foundation established by the billionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie almost a century ago. It funds at least nine North Korea-related Track I1/2/II projects.
The Carnegie Corporation of New York … funds at least nine North Korea-related Track I1/2/II projects
“It is (a small group), but to be honest, there aren’t a lot of players,” said Stephen J. Del Rosso, director of the International, Peace & Security Program at the foundation. “We’ve gotten to know them through various means over the years so it’s not a scientific process but it’s a normal … process of getting to know who the various players are, and discussing with various people in and out of government who’s most appropriate.”
According to an examination of its financial records by NK News, the philanthropic organization has provided just under $5.4 million for Track I1/2/II efforts related to North Korea since 2009, when the Obama administration came into office. The largest share of $1.27 million went to the IGCC, followed by the NCAFP and SSRC with $1.075 million and $895,000, respectively. Carnegie itself generates its resources from the original endowment left to it by its founder. From its initial value of $135 million in 1912, this amount is worth some $3.3 billion today.
“We want to see quality in the individual and the track record,” Del Rosso explained of the selection process. “We do external reviews, we check out individuals in their organizations.
So we have a reality check on the ability of our Track II grantees, in particular to be able to engage with North Koreans and other related people, and in the many cases, these meetings are testimony to efficacy of the meetings – people vote with their feet.”
Del Rosso said he doesn’t micromanage the selection of participants or agenda, instead trusting the grantees as chosen by the board of trustees. He conceded, however, to having “indirect input” in the process.
Other less prominent private sources of funding include Ploughshares Fund and the Henry Luce Foundation. The former allocated $497,000 to Track I1/2/II activities solely targeting North Korea between 2009 and 2014. Another $419,300 was spent supporting other North Korea-related avenues such as research, and on broader projects that involved North Korea and another country such as Iran. The Henry Luce Foundation, meanwhile, spent $125,000 on Track I1/2/II alone between 2009 and this year.
Public funds, both from the U.S. government and governments overseas, also support Track I1/2/II efforts, despite the strong insistence of participants that they act solely in their own capacity and not as representatives of their government.
Of the some $5.5 million in funding IGCC disclosed for July, 2013-June 2014, more than 80 percent came from U.S. state and federal government sources
Of the some $5.5 million in funding IGCC disclosed for July, 2013-June 2014, more than 80 percent came from U.S. state and federal government sources, according to its most recent annual report. Some of this funding included grants from the U.S. Department of Defense.
CSIS also relies heavily on government money, as well as private and corporate donations.
The think tank, which works on numerous geopolitical questions aside from North Korea, reported an operating revenue of just over $32 million in 2013. Among 18 government donors listed on its website are those of the U.S., South Korea, Japan, the EU and Saudi Arabia, although it’s not clear which donors supported Track I1/2/II with North Korea, or with what amounts. Instead of specific figures, donations are categorized into vague ranges such as $50,000-$499,999, and $500,000 and up. Corporate donors span a wide spectrum from Citigroup and Coca-Cola, to Samsung and Lockheed Martin.
Sources of funding notwithstanding, the Track I1/2/II figures that spoke to NK News were keen to emphasize their independence.
“I do not go as an agent, in any sense, of the U.S. government, but I do obviously (keep) U.S. State Department officials informed of what we might be doing and whom we meet,” said Bosworth. “And the North Koreans understand that, and that’s one of the rules of the game. But in no way am I taking a State Department message. I am there primarily to listen.”
‘I do not go as an agent, in any sense, of the U.S. government … in no way am I taking a State Department message’
DeTrani denied any U.S. government input in setting the terms of meetings.
“There were absolutely no constraints,” he said. “And there was absolutely no dialogue with the government – no tasking from the government, no conditions put on us by the government,” he said.
DeTrani added: “We were just giving our personal views based on our experience we’ve had on working these issues.”
But he did acknowledge briefing government figures on his observations afterward. Obama administration officials didn’t seek him out, he said, but rather he “got on people’s schedules.”
To what extent government officials might take on board such counsel is unclear. DeTrani insisted he has no such expectations.
“I don’t assume that way, I just share my views,” he said.
Evans Revere, who spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service before becoming senior director with the Albright Stonebridge Group, said that there isn’t an obligation to keep the U.S. government informed of what takes place in such meetings, but that sometimes there is a meeting beforehand to “discuss what U.S. policy is.”
Revere said he is “generally supportive” of U.S. policy on North Korea and that the State Department is receptive to Track I1/2/II meetings in which participants are not going to “criticize U.S. policy.”
“In most cases the organization participating in the meeting will reach out to the government after the meeting and share with them a summary of what happened,” he said. “Those are the meetings the government looks favorably on.”
THE FRUITS OF TRACK II
It’s always good to talk – that, at least, is what Track I1/2/II proponents almost invariably argue when championing their efforts. In the absence of official dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, the thinking goes, unofficial discussions can only ease tensions and enhance mutual understanding.
“My view is – notwithstanding the challenges – that it’s better than an absence of communication,” said Carnegie’s Del Rosso.
“And since there are no official channels of communication these days between the two governments, to the extent that we can learn something about the North Koreans and they can learn something about us, all the better. We never claimed that we’re going to solve the nuclear problem, but we do know that this is a necessary but insufficient condition, engagement, before we can reach that stage.”
‘We never claimed that we’re going to solve the nuclear problem, but we do know that this (engagement) is a necessary but insufficient condition … before we can reach that stage’
As well as serving as a potential stepping stone to formal diplomacy, Track I1/2/II efforts have provided insights into the thinking of the other side, according to supporters.
In Singapore, the North Korean side portrayed the regime as far from desperate for U.S. approval, according to those present, despite its longstanding demand for normal diplomatic relations with its adversary.
Bosworth described the message conveyed: “That they are not all that uncomfortable with where things now stand, they are not dying to get to back to the table to talk to the Obama administration. And they’re sort of getting on with their own situation. The economy seem to be doing a little bit better.”
Nevertheless, Bosworth perceived the North as keen to return to the Six-Party Talks – but only in a way that suits it.
“I think they are eager to get back to the Six-Party Talks, but they are sufficiently self-confident that they want to do it more or less on their own terms, and they don’t want to make any concessions on substance to the get back to discussions,” he said.
As whether the North would actually ever consider denuclearization should the talks resume, DeTrani said his counterparts at least appeared open to the possibility.
“This was not dismissed as a non-issue,” he said. “In fact, what I took away (is) that this is still an issue and that the North is still prepared to discuss. This is what I took away from it. Now whether that’s a fact, or they’re prepared to to do that, I guess the proof will be in the implementation and if it makes progress.”
In the recent past, similar engagement has revealed consequential and previously known details about the North’s nuclear activities. In 2010, a trip by nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker revealed the existence of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility.
Isolated examples are not likely to assuage critics who note an ever more advanced nuclear program in the North after decades of civilian engagement
“One of the major American scientists who was visiting the North not long ago was the person who found that, not formal envoys, not other investigators,” said Christopher Nichols, a professor at Oregon State University who specializes in international relations. “So even in the limited ways in which information can come out through at least partial Track II conversations and dialogues, I think that’s useful to some extent.”
Perhaps most famously of all, Jimmy Carter’s 1994 trip to Pyongyang has been credited with laying the groundwork for the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea committed to dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
Yet these isolated examples are not likely to assuage critics who note an ever more advanced nuclear program in the North after decades of civilian engagement dating back to the 1990s. Since announcing its intention to leave the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1994, North Korea has carried out three nuclear weapons detentions and numerous missile tests. Agreements to freeze or scrap its nuclear program reached in 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2012 have fallen apart, domino-like, one by one.
“With regard to Track II – I challenge anyone to cite evidence that it has achieved any significant and lasting change in North Korean society, or in reducing the threat its government poses to the North Korean people or to us,” Joshua Stanton, author of the blog One Free Korea and a co-drafter of U.S. sanctions against North Korea, told NK News.
Stanton doesn’t just see little value in such efforts – he considers them potentially harmful.
“Contacts between private foreign citizens and North Korean government officials are not only unlikely to result in positive change within North Korea, North Korea is likely to selectively grant those contacts to those it intends to exploit, including for its domestic and international propaganda. For example, the participants in Women Cross DMZ claim they were misquoted by the North Korean press as praising North Korea’s political system,” he said, referencing the recent peace march featuring Gloria Steinem and other prominent women activists.
‘With regard to Track II – I challenge anyone to cite evidence that it has achieved any significant and lasting change in North Korean society’
Even participants themselves play down the impact of their initiatives.
“To be frank, it is with the rarest of exceptions is there anything discussed by North Koreans present in these meetings that would diverge from what we can read in the North Korean media,” said Pollack. “That’s not an intrinsic reason to avoid these meetings, but it’s to put them in a more realistic context.”
Asked about criticism that citizen engagement has produced few successes, DeTrani gave an even starker reply: “They’re probably right, what’s been achieved? North Korea has more nuclear weapons, it has more delivery systems.”
There are also ethical questions. While some meetings are relatively transparent (DeTrani, who emphasized the importance of openness, has written publicly about his Singapore trip), others take place entirely behind closed doors, their contents veiled forever.
‘What’s been achieved? North Korea has more nuclear weapons, it has more delivery systems’
“I think that’s partly why the skeptics have such strong arguments about why Track II doesn’t seem to be effective,” said Nichols. “We don’t really know all of what is going on in these ‘engagements’ – they seem vague. It certainly plays into the hands of domestic opponents in say the U.S. if they want to call Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter someone who has been duped by North Korea.”
Also potentially fraught is how unofficial diplomacy interacts with official government policy. For better or worse, the Obama administration has spurned precondition-free dialogue with the North, especially following the collapse of its short-lived “Leap Day Deal.”
The Track I1/2/II club evidently sees no need for such restraint.
“At what point is that going too far and actually usurping the role of the (U.S.) State Department?” said Nichols. “That’s an open and important question. If the State Department has helped shut down these negotiations, should these former officials create at least the impression that they are doing that – that they’re restarting the conversations?”
The State Department declined to comment for this article, but Track I1/2/II participants did offer their impressions of how unofficial engagement is viewed within the government.
Bosworth, Revere, and DeTrani all denied ever receiving criticism from government sources for confusing or undermining official policy.
Revere said that such dialogues are often helpful in alerting Washington to the mood in Pyongyang, even when the mood is bad.
“I’m of the school of thought that if you want to know what the North Koreans are thinking, sometimes just ask them,” he said. In the months leading up to the inauguration of Barack Obama – who famously said in his campaign that he’d be willing to meet with the leaders of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea – Revere said Track I1/2/II dialogues revealed that any “reaching out (by Washington) would likely be rejected.”
“Over the years I can think of half a dozen instances where the North Koreans told me things that they had not told Washington,” he said.
Yet DeTrani also admitted feeling trepidation about such efforts when he was in government himself, before adding, incongruously, that he had “never felt the competition” personally.
“Having being a former negotiator … I think in those positions, you want to say, “Gee, we have an active dialogue, do we need others coming in and maybe conflating issues or making things a little more confusing for our interlocutors and so forth – without saying we don’t want you to do it, but feeling a little uncomfortable.”
Despite mixed signals over his previous thoughts in government, DeTrani was adamant about the effects of his own efforts and those of his colleagues as private citizens. They had done nothing to undermine official policy, he said.
“We felt we were giving insight to North Korea – not to make agreements or anything – but for them to better understand at least how we saw some of the issues and possibly how some of these issues are viewed in the U.S., so they get a better appreciation of why there’s such frustration with North Korea.”
Rob York contributed to this report
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