That question looms over the trip by Obama envoy Stephen Bosworth to North Korea for the highest-level face-to-face US contacts with North Korea negotiators since the nuclear standoff began.
State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly called the meeting "an important one," but cautioned it would not represent a "be-all and end-all" break-through on North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile technology required to menace the West.
A senior administration official said the delegation would be in North Korea for a "couple of days" and that Bosworth would bring no inducements for the North to come back to the negotiating table. The official said the administration is aware the North has rejected rejoining the six-party talks, but wants to hear it directly from North Korean negotiators.
Here is the full transcript of the State Department's conference call teeing up the Bosworth trip.
BACKGROUND BRIEFING. Senior administration official on Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth’s upcoming trip to North Korea
STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN IAN KELLY: Welcome to our background teleconference call on the trip of Stephen Bosworth to North Korea. You will be speaking with a Senior Administration Official. The Senior Administration Official has about 15 minutes, and I’ll turn it over to our Senior Administration Official. Go ahead.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Ian. And hello, everybody. As you all know, Ambassador Steve Bosworth and his delegation will be arriving shortly in Pyongyang, DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). The purpose of their mission is to determine whether the North Koreans are ready and willing to return to the Six-Party Talks and return to a serious discussion about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
From the beginning of the Administration, we’ve made clear that we’re prepared to engage diplomatically with the North Koreans in pursuit of this objective. But for the first six months or so, rather than take advantage of the opportunity to continue on the path that was established by the 2005 joint statement, the North Koreans instead proceeded to test ballistic missiles and conduct nuclear tests.
As a result of their actions, the international community responded in a very firm and clear way with the enactment of Resolution 1874, which we’ve been implementing since June. After the enactment of that resolution, we began to get some indication that the North may be prepared to return to the discussions. But we are – and after consultation with all of our allies, close consultation with our allies, we agreed that the best way to determine the North Koreans’ true intentions was to engage them directly.
As I said, the purpose of these talks is to determine whether they’re willing to reaffirm the 2005 joint statement and return to the talks. This is not intended to be an extended bilateral engagement, but simply to have an opportunity to determine what the North’s intentions are with respect to those two issues.
Should the North be – to return to those talks and recommit to the 2005 joint statement, there are a broad range of issues that can be discussed in that format. But for the purpose of this trip, our agenda is quite narrow.
Let me stop with that, and happy to take your questions.
OPERATOR: The first question is from Elise Labott.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if Bosworth would be bringing any specific proposals on how to restart the talks and any kind of additional inducements that you can offer to the North Koreans to bring them back to the table.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, on the latter, he is definitely not carrying any additional inducements. We’ve said from the beginning, and this is something that’s agreed by all of the other members of the Six-Party Talks, that we don’t intend to reward North Korea simply for going back to doing something that it had previously committed to do, and that that’s something we’ve seen in the past but has proved to be counterproductive in terms of our overall goal. So there are no inducements or incentives other than the fact that should they resume the talks, then they would be in a position to pursue some of the things that were possible should they proceed with denuclearization.
With respect to the specifics, I think that the easiest answer is for the North simply to make clear that it is ready to resume those talks, and then we would expect that the chair would reconvene the talks. If they have other specific ideas of modalities about restarting the talks, we would obviously listen to them, as long as it’s clear that the intention was to rejoin the talks and reaffirm the basic principles under which the talks are taking place, which is the 2005 joint statement.
QUESTION: But Bosworth himself isn’t bringing any specific proposals on how to kind of restart the talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think what he – the specifics are more that if they’re ready to go, we’re confident that the chair of the talks would be prepared to reconvene those talks. So I think the modalities from our perspective are very straightforward: If there are specific issues that the North wants to raise in terms of how to get them restarted, obviously we would listen to that.
OPERATOR:The next question is from Rosiland Jordan.
QUESTION: How long do you expect Ambassador Bosworth to be in North Korea? Is there a drop-dead moment when the U.S. will decide that having these face-to-face talks is simply not being productive? And conversely, was there anything in particular beyond the willingness to go back into the discussions and to stop its nuclearization process that would compel Mr. Bosworth to stay in Pyongyang any longer than he’s already scheduled to be there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, our anticipation is that the delegation will be there for a couple of days. We don’t have any firm fixed deadline. If the conversations – the topic is fairly straightforward, so we don’t see a need for an extended engagement here. Basically, we’re trying to ascertain the answer to some very straightforward questions. But we don’t want to put an artificial deadline on it. We obviously would like to understand better what the North Koreans’ perspective are. That’s the reason we’re having face-to-face contact. And so we’ll leave that to the discretion of Ambassador Bosworth as the chair of the delegation.
QUESTION: What sorts of – what sort of understanding are you trying to reach from the North Koreans? I don’t quite understand what it is. I mean, either they want to be involved in this process or they don’t want to be. So could you explain that more?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. I mean, as I say – I mean, from our perspective, we really want to get clarity on two very basic questions, which is, one, are they prepared to resume the Six-Party Talks? They’ve been part of them, so they know what that entails. And second, are they prepared to reaffirm the 2005 joint statement? I mean, the reason we’re having these conversations is that over the course of the past year, they’ve indicated that they aren’t going to be part of it. But in subsequent months, there were some indications that they might have had a different view on this question. So we want to hear it directly from them. And if they are prepared to do that, then we can begin the process of starting those talks. If not, then we’ll consult with our allies about what next steps we all need to take.
QUESTION: My final point on this. Is this also an opportunity to assess whether there are any fundamental changes in the way that the DPRK Government is constituted, given President Kim’s health problems in the past year?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not sure whether we’ll gain any insight on that question. It’s certainly not the purpose of the trip. I think it’s – we’ve had a good preliminary set of discussions with the North Koreans during the visit of Ri Gun here to make clear that we have a very focused diplomatic objective here, and that’s what the delegation will be focused on.
OPERATOR: Next question is from Josh Rogin.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. I’m just wondering if you could detail out for us who exactly will be on this delegation representing the government? And who – what meetings have you already been promised or have the North Koreans indicated they’ll give you? Will Bosworth be able to meet with high-ranking officials, such as Kang Sok-ju? Thank you very much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the second, we have received assurances from the North Koreans that they will have appropriate high-level meetings. I don’t want to speculate on precisely who that will be. But we feel confident that the people that Ambassador Bosworth will engage with are very senior officials who can speak authoritatively for the North Korean Government, which is what we want to do.
On the composition of the delegation, I think I know the answer, but I don’t want to get that wrong, so I’m going to ask one of my colleagues if they can just confirm that for you. We’ll just do that at the end of this.
QUESTION: Sure. And just as a very quick follow-up, I was wondering if you could explain to us if there’s a role for the special envoy for North Korean human rights in this process at all. What is the status of his integration into the team dealing with North Korea today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He’s very much involved. Part of the reason that he is engaged elsewhere, which is we’re about to begin the Universal Periodic Review of North Korea’s human rights in Geneva. Again, I know it’s within the next couple of days. I’ll get you – confirm the exact day of that. And he will be representing the United States at the UPR. We’ve had a chance to have him involved in a number of the discussions. And I’m quite confident that in the course of the discussions that Ambassador Bosworth will have that we will encourage the North Koreans to participate constructively in the UPR and to take seriously the suggestions that we’re going to make as part of that process.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Alex Spillius.
QUESTION: Hello, thanks very much. Just a couple of things. I’m from the Daily Telegraph, by the way. I wondered when was the last meeting of this equivalent level? How many years ago? And also, just generally, how optimistic are you that you’re going to come away or the delegation will come away having heard what you’re hoping to hear from the North Koreans?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the former, Ambassador Hill had a number of contacts with the North Koreans in the context of the Six-Party Talks, and we could probably get you a little more detail on the history here. But much of the contact came in conjunction with their participation. This will be the first high-level contact in the Obama Administration.
The – I think what we – I think we want to get an answer to the question about what the North Koreans’ intentions are. We don’t have expectations one way or the other as to whether they’re going to say yes or no, but we do think it’s important to get some clarity about this. There have been suggestions in other contacts that the North have had that they may be prepared to do this, but we understand that you never know what the answer is until you ask and get the question answered.
QUESTION: And if I may follow up quickly, if you don’t get the answer to your beginning thing, then what way you would go from there if you don’t get the answer that you want?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we – well, first of all, we are operating under the assumption that they are not participating. And the measures that we adopted under 1874 represent the response of the international community to what they’re doing. So whether we need to do additional steps, I think, is something we’ll want to consult with others, but I think – at a minimum, I think it will reinforce the intention of the international community to continue a very strong enforcement of Resolution 1874 and other Security Council resolutions if the North confirms that it’s still and willing to participate in the Six-Party Talks.
MR. KELLY: Kelly, we have time for one more question.
QUESTION: I want to know, sir, if you could let us know what do you feel is different now from all of the attempts and efforts to get North Korea to engage this year? Was there a specific message that was passed during the Bill Clinton visit or any kind of a message that indicates that something would be different now from their intransigent stance all year long?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in the end, we don’t know whether things are different. That’s something we’re going to find out when Ambassador Bosworth has a chance to talk to the North Korean officials. But we have certainly heard from the Chinese who had two high-level visits in recent months to North Korea, as well as some indications from President Clinton’s visit and from the visit of senior North Korean officials to South Korea in conjunction with Kim Dae-jung’s funeral, that they may be more open to reengage in the Six-Party Talks than their initial statement said, characterizing the talks as being dead. And given the fact that there was some indication that they may be prepared to do this, we thought it was important, since it’s clearly in everyone’s interest that they do so, that we go and determine for ourselves what their real intentions are.
QUESTION: And just to follow up, sir, what do you think they are getting out of this? I mean, what do they see as the quid pro quo? The face of having Bosworth come to Pyongyang and for them to be able to represent it as a bilateral engagement? What are they getting out of it that would make them be willing to engage --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think what --
QUESTION: -- in the Six-Party Talks again?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think what they’re getting out of it is that the – the only hope that they have for getting out of the sanctions and becoming more integrated into the international community and having better economic opportunity for their people is to move forward on denuclearization. So they have to take the first step, if they want to achieve those things, by regaining the talks. So we think that there are ample reasons for them to want to do this, and I think Ambassador Bosworth will reiterate that point when he meets with him.
All right. Well, thank you all very much.