WikiLeaks XII: If It Had Its Druthers, Would North Korea Take the U.S. Over China?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twelfth in the series.

A curious document dropped in the WikiLeaks dump this week casts a sliver of light on the world’s most mysterious regime. The cable, issued from the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar, discussed a meeting that took place just over a year ago between representatives of Mongolia, including the president, and North Korean vice foreign affairs minister Kim Yong II.

According to the cable, the meetings represented a surprising change of tone and tactics on the part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North Korean delegation did not robotically read from a prepared script, did not waste time criticizing the United States, but repeatedly voiced displeasure with Russia and China.

Also noteworthy was the DPRK delegation’s insistence that they were optimistic about possibilities for rapprochement with the United States, given the changed nature of politics in the Oval Office. Discussing former president Bill Clinton’s undercover rescue mission to the northern peninsula last year, the DPRK delegation noted that

The groundwork for such a visit was already in place because of the progress the United States and the DPRK made during the Clinton presidency. Kim said forward motion stopped during the Bush Administration but was now able to proceed because of President Clinton’s recent involvement in a personal capacity, because President Obama is of the same party, and because former First Lady Clinton is now the Secretary of State. The North Koreans were expecting a dialogue with the United States to start soon as an extension of President Clinton’s visit.

But the vice foreign minister also hammered home the fact that any diplomatic advances would most certainly not take place in the now defunct six party talks.

Kim took a “very hard line” on the Six Party Talks according to xxxxx stating that the DPRK will never return to the talks, that the talks were dead, but that the door has not closed on an opportunity for negotiations. During discussion of the Six Party Talks, Kim criticized Russia and China for their support of recent UN resolutions aimed at the DPRK. Kim said Japan and the ROK were natural allies of the United States during the talks, and that Russia and China ended up supporting the other three, so that the DPRK felt it was five against one. Kim stated the real intention of the Six Party Talks was to destroy the DPRK regime, and that at present the DPRK wants to talk only to the United States.

Given recent flare-ups along the Korean peninsula, any attempts at squeezing meaning from this cable may be nothing more than academic at this point. Still, it’s hard not to feel as if important information might be gleaned, and not necessarily all of it about North Korea.

What’s most immediately striking is the picture painted by the Mongolians of a DPRK delegation that went out of its way to signal openness to a relationship with the United States. True, this portrait may have been touched up here and there through the filter of Mongolian interests (more on that in a moment). But if we reject the idea that the whole thing is nothing more than fully fabricated nonsense, then we have to assume that there is a kernel of truth in the narrative—perhaps without the warts and all. We also have to assume that the DPRK would have been fully aware that the Mongolians intended to pass along the contents of the meetings to their American allies. Can we then play with the idea that the North Koreans were testing the waters to see about possible negotiations with the United States?

Critics will surely reject this notion, arguing that the cable relates just another attempt by the wily DPRK to extract further concessions from the consistently gullible Americans with no intention whatsoever of participating in good faith negotiations to end the country’s sixty year standoff with the West. It’s a valid point.

But then why not extend the olive branch in public, yet one more time? Were elements in the isolated DPRK brain trust, perhaps sensing an imminent changing of the guard at the top of their government, feeling out possibilities for a new, more productive relationship with Washington? Perhaps too they have been sensing that China’s patience with Kim Jong Il is rapidly winding down, and that the time has come to establish relations with new partners to hedge against unpredictable future relations with Beijing.

And then there’s Mongolia. The cable clearly serves the best interests of Ulaanbaatar, which not-so-subtly positions itself as a trusted potential arbiter between Washington and Pyongyang. The cable ends with this:

xxxxx further noted that a xxxxx in Ulaanbaatar xxxxx on the way to the airport on August 11 that he had suggested to VFM Kim that it would be good to host U.S.-DPRK talks in Mongolia, but that Kim offered no reaction. xxxxx that the timing was right to establish a regional security mechanism whose organization the Mongols should spearhead.

Of course they should!

And so what? If Mongolia wants to situate itself as the hub of a regional security mechanism, whatever that means, serving the interests of peace in the area while simultaneously offering an anchor of US influence smack-dab in the middle of the Eurasian heartland, then all the more reason for Washington to endorse the move.

The only missing piece in all this is the American reaction, if any, to the news conveyed in the leaked cable. Given other cables issuing alarms about underwater nuclear reactors and Kim Jong Il’s recreational drug abuse, the State Department could very well have had its mind on other things.