Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., “is a bit at odds with his own party” on North Korea, according to Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow on Northeast Asia for the Heritage Foundation.
In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Kerry said the U.S. should engage the North directly in bilateral talks, on our own timetable, in order to re-start the Six-Party talks that were broken off after North Korean provocations. "[T]he best option is to consult closely with South Korea and launch bilateral talks with North Korea when we decide the time is appropriate," Kerry said. "Fruitful talks between the U.S. and North Korea can lay the groundwork for resumption of the six-party talks.”
This puts Kerry at odds with the Obama administration, which is taking a much harder line. Obama is insisting that North Korea abide by its denuclearization obligations and improve its relationship with the South before six-party talks can resume. He has not given any indication that he is open to any formal discussions with the North Koreans until Six-Party talks are back on track.
“The administration is not going to freelance,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy expert at the CATO Institute.
Kerry was far less categorical in endorsing bilateral talks: “We will set the time and place and negotiate in good faith. Talks will be based on our national security interests and those of our allies.” This is a closer position to the one he took in a debate during the 2004 presidential race, in which he criticized President' Bush's insistence on involving China, Russia, and Japan in formal negotiations. Kerry's office did not respond to inquiries.
If talks with North Korea are held without Seoul’s involvement, Klingner says, “it would be seen as either usurping Seoul’s initiative with its neighbor or leaving our ally out in the cold.”
What's more, the North prefers to deal with the U.S. because they see South Korea as a puppet of the U.S. and refuse to accept their neighbors' legitimacy. This is the reason “they don’t want to negotiate really serious things with them,” says Carpenter.
A South Korean official was quoted Tuesday by the Yonhap News Agency as saying, "The reason we want to hold denuclearization talks with the North is because we want to rectify the North's behavioral pattern of trying to have denuclearization talks only with the U.S.”
In a speech this week, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak seemed to be on the same page as Obama. "I wish that we can have sincere dialogue with the North this year," he said. "I don’t think we need to confer with the U.S. about this beforehand, although it would be necessary to discuss with the participants of the six-party talks after (the summit).”
Even though coordination is strong between the U.S. and South Korea, “Seoul may be sending Washington a message to make sure it doesn’t feel it can sidetrack Seoul in an effort to reengage with North Korea,” Klingner said.