The United States on Wednesday appointed a new special envoy to North Korea who will meet with representatives of the isolated regime in Geneva next week, the latest in a series of actions to renew talks that stalled years ago.
The current envoy, Stephen Bosworth, will be replaced by Glyn Davies, who has been serving as the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the replacement “a change in personnel but not policy.” He said the goal of next week’s meeting is “exploratory,” to see whether North Korea is willing to follow through on promises made in 2005, before the multilateral talks on its denuclearization broke down.
“We are not going to reward North Korea just for returning to the table, nor give them anything new for action they have agreed to take, but we want to see that they’re committed to move the process forward,” Toner said.
The appointment of Davies — a lower-key and lower-profile figure — reflects a cautious approach by the Obama administration toward the renewed talks, said Victor Cha, a former Asian affairs director for the White House.
The special envoy position, created by Obama when he took office, was meant to be filled by a high-level appointment who would serve as the president’s direct representative for bilateral talks with North Korea amid worries over its nuclear weapons program. Bosworth, a prominent former ambassador who served a stint in South Korea, fit that bill.
“Davies is a very competent diplomat, but not at that same level,” said Cha, now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It shows that they are trying to make North Korea policy a less politically charged issue.”
Bosworth will introduce Davies to the North Korean officials at meetings on Monday and Tuesday in Geneva, the second round of U.S. talks with North Korea since this summer.
The announcement came on the same day that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il urged a resumption of the multilateral talks on denuclearization in a rare written interview with a Russian news service, according to North Korea’s state news agency. In his written comments, Kim stuck by his long-held stance that there should be no preconditions for resuming talks.
The six-party talks — which included the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia — have been stalled since 2008. But over the summer, North Korea ramped up its dialogue with the South and with the United States.
The reengagement follows a year of turmoil on the peninsula. In March 2010, North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 people. It also shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people in November 2010, and unveiled a uranium-enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. scientist.
Meanwhile, the appointment of Davies represents a wider shift in the diplomatic approach by the Obama administration, said Michael Green, a National Security Council director for Asia during the George W. Bush administration.
“When Obama was campaigning, he pledged to talk to foreign dictators without conditions. And so when he came in, you saw the appointment of several special envoys for the Middle East, for Afghanistan-Pakistan and North Korea, all with limited success,” Green said. “What this change to Davies represents is a kind of end of innocence in the Obama administration. Instead of the high-profile figures, you’re seeing more undramatic, low-key, career guys. They want more control over the message, especially heading into an election year. They don’t want any surprises.”
Davies is a respected foreign service officer who has spent much of his career focusing on Europe, but from 2007 to 2009 he served as principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s East Asia office.
Despite the recent flurry of activity on North Korea, there are few signs that Pyongyang would be willing to give up its pursuit of nuclear arms. The real goal of engagement, experts say, is to prevent North Korea from making further provocations such as another attack on the South.
“The U.S. knows that if you leave North Korea alone too long, they will rattle cages. And if that happens, South Korea is very likely to respond,” Cha said.