North Korean representatives and academics from various countries took part in discussions in Sweden in late November prior to last week’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, multiple participants told NK News.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) hosted the event on November 21 and 22, which was aimed at promoting discussion on ongoing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
“The group looked at the background, the current situation, the drivers, the risks and possible measures for reducing risk,” Dan Smith, Director of SIPRI, told NK News.
“The aim of the meeting was for participants to learn more and see if we could generate some ideas about what to do,” he added. “I think such meetings are extremely important.”
Speaking to NK News, Smith described the event as “an experts roundtable, focussing on European perspectives on Northeast Asia regional security and, in particular, obviously, on North Korea,” but said that it had not been a Track 2 dialogue.
Track 2 is defined as an unofficial dialogue involving non-state actors, frequently influential ones, under fewer restrictions than high-ranking government officials.
Suzanne DiMaggio, a director and senior fellow at New America, participated in the event and told NK News that the dialogue was formatted as an “expert roundtable” however, “with some elements of a ‘Track 2’ dialogue.”
Georgy Toloraya, a former Russian diplomat and Director of Korean Programs at the Institute of Economy of Russian Academy of Sciences, also participated in the discussions and described it as a Track 2 event.
Regardless, Smith and DiMaggio told NK News that they saw the dialogue as having been helpful in the current climate.
“It was a well-structured and productive discussion,” DiMaggio said. “It’s always helpful to have the opportunity to exchange perspectives with representatives from North Korea and to hear their viewpoints and questions. Hopefully, they gained insights from the discussion too.”
In addition to its North Korean participants, the event featured experts from Russia, China, the UK, Italy, Germany, the U.S., and Switzerland.
While Smith and DiMaggio were not willing to discuss details about the North Koreans attending the event, Toloraya said that the four DPRK representatives were from the Korea-Europe Association, a de facto arm of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While there was no resulting agreed document from the event, Toloraya indicated that there were hopes for the potential to resolve the crisis through a previously publicly proposed plan.
“There are hopes and the intention for dialogue based on the freeze idea,” he said, referring to a proposal tabled by China in which North Korea would freeze missile tests in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea freezing their joint military exercises.
This proposal has so far been rejected by the U.S. at the official level, with President Donald Trump telling Chinese President Xi Jinping that such a deal was not acceptable during his visit to Asia in November.
While hopeful, participants appear less optimistic about positive outcomes amid the current crisis.
“While I found the discussion to be constructive, it’s difficult to feel optimistic at this time,” DiMaggio told NK News. “The longer the current course of escalation persists and intensifies, the greater the chances for spiraling into military conflict either by design or by miscalculation.”
This lack of optimism appears to have been exacerbated following North Korea’s November 29 launch of its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), according to Toloraya, who said U.S. interest in potential talks would be low.
None of the participants NK News spoke to indicated that they received any signal regarding the impending missile test that was to come one week after the event, nor any indication of the reasons behind the relative lull in testing that preceded it.
Evans Revere, a senior director with the Albright Stonebridge Group, has previously taken part in such dialogues – including at the Track 2 level – and told NK News that the efficacy of such non-official events is limited in the absence of higher-level talks.
“Having attended some Track 2 events recently, I am convinced they are only marginally useful at this moment,” he said. “What is required now is direct, quiet, authoritative, and urgent communication, especially between Pyongyang and Washington, in order to de-escalate tensions and explore whether there is any basis for a dialogue on the main issues of concern, including denuclearization.”
“Unfortunately, too many Track 2 dialogues in recent years have provided venues for the North Koreans to be told what they want to hear, not what they need to hear,” he added.
Revere said that this has encouraged the North Korean side to get a false sense of what is possible and “to receive a skewed interpretation” of the U.S. government’s bottom line.
Echoing DiMaggio’s comments, Revere warned that the possibility of confrontation and miscalculation also remains very real.
“Direct dialogue, in which each side raises the issues that are important to it, should be the top priority,” he said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Stockholm at Sunset by Infomastern on 2016-05-28 21:19:57