February 21st, 2012
11:00 AM ET

Bosworth: Why we must talk to North Korea

Editor's Note: Ambassador Stephen Bosworth was United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy from March 2009 to October 2011. He has also served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Tunisia. Currently, he serves as Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Amar C. Bakshi: What do you make of Kim Jong-un?

Stephen Bosworth: He is an unknown quality.  We don't know exactly how old he is.  He spent a couple of years in Switzerland, studying at a middle school there where he was portrayed as the son of the embassy chauffeur.

I can’t believe that he’s going to have any real authority within the system in North Korea without the concurrence of all senior military and civilian leaders.  They’re not engaged in some sort of a suicide mission.  They’re not about to turn their fate over to a 28-year-old or 29-year-old untested person, even if he is Kim Jong-il’s son and Kim Il-sung’s grandson.

Amar C. Bakshi: So who is the power behind the throne? Is it the party? Is it the military?

Stephen Bosworth: I think it’s largely the military, but senior party officials obviously also have some influence.  We know that Kim Jong-un’s uncle and aunt have particularly important roles at present.  But I think this is not that dissimilar from the situation that has always existed.  I think that Kim Jong-il was loath to overrule significant elements in the military or in the party.  So they spent a lot of time trying to work toward consensus.

Amar C. Bakshi: So you don’t expect significant change under Kim Jong-un?

Stephen Bosworth: No, I really don’t.  Now, on the other hand, that doesn’t mean that bad things could not happen, because, in fact, if they begin to sense that either the outside world is pressing in on them, or that the outside world is ignoring them, they may well do things designed to get our attention - perhaps missile tests, nuclear tests, things designed to show that they remain a force to be dealt with and that they are not to be ignored.

Amar C. Bakshi: Do you imagine talks starting at any point in the near future?

Stephen Bosworth:  I think they could.  I’ve stopped trying to predict what North Korea may or may not do.  I think that there is a good possibility that we may see a resumption of talks sometime in 2012.  But I certainly wouldn’t bet on it….

Our problem with North Korea has to the fact that it is a particularly difficult foreign policy challenge for our system of government to work with and to work on.  We have a tendency to believe that problems exist to be solved - not to be managed, but solved. And in the case of North Korea, that, in my judgment, requires that we talk to them in a serious fashion.

And right now, in an election year, not only an election year in the United States, but an election in South Korea and a year of changing leadership in China, I think that we’re going to find that there is a changing environment within which talks would have to take place.

So I think it’s unlikely - but not impossible - that the North Koreans are going to be prepared to take the sort of strategic risk that they would have to take in order to make talks with us productive.  Neither do I think that it’s likely in an election year that we’re going to take the sort of public relations and strategic risk that would be required if we are going to make the talks productive.

So I hope that we can do more than just manage to maintain stability over the current year, but I’m not all that optimistic.

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Topics: Diplomacy • North Korea

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    Stephen Bosworth definately has the right idea here. We must talk to North Korea instead applying the politics of hunger or as they call it, "economic sactions" and threatening them with another war. I know that there are a lot of right-wing idiots here who want nothing more than another war and that's wrong!!! Moreover, we may even get the North Koreans to normalize relations with that country whose name starts with a J. and that would be good for both!

    February 21, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • Charlie Wilson

      Well said, George. Thank you.

      February 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      George Patton, if you're a pacifist, why do you assume the name of an eccentric and controversial general of WW II?

      February 21, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Reply
    • Travis

      Kudos to you, George. Like you, I have no patience with these ignorant, right-wing fools here who keep touting war as a cure all for all the international problems of the world. There is no glory in nor any sense for unnecessary wars except to help promote the careers of right-wing politicians and make the rich even richer! Some people can be stupid at times!

      February 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply

    Fear the unknown?
    Well, here in America and Canada, we are still witnessing ethnic based Government positions and opportunities.
    Why do I care for America and Americans, where the motives of service and protection are based on ethnicity?
    Just go and see. Italians favors Italian,
    Jewish favor Jewish,
    Irish favor for Irish,
    Black Slave Descendants favor for BSD,
    East Indians for East Indians, etc.

    So, if we do not belong to the Ethno-opportunities, we do not have hope to share the benefits of American dream.
    So, who cares about America and Canada?
    The American and Canadian Governments and Some people are granted and in favor of Chinese ethnicity. If China invades America and Canada, they are well come. Why do I care?

    February 21, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply

    The American Criminal code Law Book has more than a Thousand Pages with Thousands of Rules.
    I guaranteed, none of US, including the American President abide all the Rules that is written in the Law Book.
    However, we seen only very few Wealthy and very much poor getting caught and charged.

    February 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • 100% ETHIO

      Quiet TRUE.
      The same as all Christians including the Vatican, not obeyed the Ten Commandments and the entire written Bible.

      And also, other Religion believers they don't obeyed the entire Rules and the whole Religious Book.

      They just choose some parts they like to obey. Which is bad.
      Sometimes, if you listen when the American President gives speech, you will always find something that is contrary against American Law. Means, he is breaking the Law, but no one bothered to go forward and to laid criminal charge against him.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    I don't share Mr. Bosworth's views. I do think there would be change in North Korea in the future. Kim Jong-un held a speech recently and received a standing ovation. He acknowledged it and signalled the audience to sit down. Therei's a younger anchorwoman on the state T.V. too. His aunt, a four-star general is married to Chang Song-thaek, who is seen by some to be the most open to reform and is now playing a key role in supporting the young leader. Chang might be an influential voice in favour of economic liberalisation and greater openness, favoured by China. Besides Kim might have support from the young people who are more aware of the wider world than the older generation. Of course momentarily, stability is priority in North Korea. In the near future, no provocation or change is expected from the North.

    February 21, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  5. matt a.

    It would seem to be an ideal time to engage in discussions with the ruling family. While Kim Song-un is largely unprepared to rule North Korea–as is his aunt and uncle-talks with them and senior military leaders would be worthwhile.

    If they led nowhere, then US officials had done their level best. It would be nice to sqelch a potential conflict that's been simmering for nearly 65 years.

    February 22, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Reply
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