x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

North Korea prepared to drop nuclear programme

North Korea would be willing to give up its nuclear programme in exchange for a written peace treaty officially ending the 1950-53 Korean War, according to a US report obtained by The National.

BEIJING // North Korea would be willing to give up its nuclear programme in exchange for a written peace treaty officially ending the 1950-53 Korean War, according to a US report obtained by The National. The report is a debriefing of a closed-door meeting held on October 30 in New York between high-level US and North Korean representatives. It was called a "track two" meeting to differentiate it from any official US-North Korea talks that might develop.

In the open and informal setting, the North Koreans were more forthcoming than they have been in the stalled six-party talks, the report, prepared by Donald Zagoria, an academic participant in the meeting, says. Also revealed in the report is that the North Koreans say they are unwilling to return to the nuclear negotiation table because in the multilateral platform they felt that "the other parties have ganged up on them".

The October 30 meeting were the first known, if unofficial, bilateral talks between the Obama administration and North Korea. Much remains unknown about the meeting, which was made possible after the US granted a visa to the North Koreans. "The North Koreans struck me as pretty sharp," said John Delury, associate director of the Asia Society, a think tank in New York that focuses on Asian affairs.

Mr Delury was one of only a handful of Americans who attended the meeting between the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, which includes three former US ambassadors to South Korea and two officials from the Senate foreign relations committee, and the North Korean delegation headed by Ri Gun, head of North American affairs at North Korea's foreign ministry. Although both sides sent ranking figures to the meeting, officially it was "nonofficial". The aim was to facilitate a more open exchange of ideas between the two often mistrustful parties.

The ground rule of informality allowed them to probe deeper into where "the other side is coming from", Mr Delury said. No formal agreement was signed at the end of the meeting, but each side took notes, went back to their camps and debriefed their superiors. "It was nice to be on the 'track two' meeting and explore things in a more open-ended way," said Mr Delury, characterising the atmosphere of the meeting as "candid, without tension, without hostility."

The standard diplomatic protocol of speaking through an interpreter was also cut out. North Korean negotiators spoke English directly to their US counterparts, which created a rare opportunity to gauge the English proficiency of the North Koreans, most of whom had never been abroad. "Their English was very impressive," Mr Delury said. Unlike the common media portrayal of North Koreans being menacing and threatening, Mr Delury said, the North Koreans he observed at the day-long meeting were flexible and reasonable. "They didn't speak rigidly - There was the conversation routine of 'back and forth'. It was a real discussion."

US media often depict North Korea as a country run by a dictator who starves his people. Its leader, Kim Jong Il, is a cartoon subject for character assassination, who toys with nuclear weapons and brutalises people in concentration camps. Apparently, the close encounter with the "enemy" helped Mr Delury to discover some other aspects to North Koreans. "I think most people who have some direct contact with North Koreans are surprised and changed their preconceived judgment," he said.

He quickly emphasised: "I am not an apologist for North Korea. I am not saying that North Korea is a great place to live. But I do think it's pretty fair to say that a lot of media representation of North Korea doesn't capture the complexity and some of the subtleties of what's going on there," Mr Delury said. The human "rapport" experienced by Mr Delury in his close encounter with the North Koreans is understandable, said Yoon Young-chul, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University Graduate School of journalism and mass communication.

"We should remember that those North Korean diplomats who participated in the New York meeting are the privileged elites in North Korea. They are well-educated, have international experiences and know international manners," he said. During the New York meeting, the North Koreans were reported to be "quite explicit" that once a peace treaty is signed they will denuclearise. "Of course, sceptics are going to say: 'That's just what North Koreans say, not what they're going to do.' But I think it's significant; it's important that that's what they're saying," Mr Delury said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae