So, is there anything the other five nations involved in the Six Party talks can do to avoid a third North Korean nuclear test?
South Korea certainly made a courageous start by indicating its willingness to withdraw its demand for an apology over the Cheonan incident. This seems especially brave considering there are real political risks for Seoul in apparently easing its stated position of holding the line against North Korean aggression. But while President Lee Myung-bak’s administration will likely lose some political capital in the short term because of the turnaround, in the long run it could still reap the benefits of promoting a pragmatic approach to greater security in the region.
The United States, meanwhile, needs to continue its role in tacitly approving a rapprochement between the two Koreas, while keeping enough sticks in its diplomatic toolkit to deter further acts of aggression from Pyongyang. Certainly by now it should be clear that the Obama administration’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ hasn’t worked. Instead, the United States should enhance the pressure of strengthened U.N. Security Council sanctions resulting from the 2009 nuclear test through unilateral penalties aimed at undermining the regime’s nuclear programme.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Against this backdrop, US diplomats are also continuing to play a central role in attempting to secure China’s acquiescence on a tough but measured approach on the issue. However, despite finding Kim’s regime a nuisance, Beijing appears unconvinced that ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea will accrue tangible political benefits. With this in mind, the United States should consider providing a more nuanced package of incentives to the Chinese that transcends the situation on the Korean peninsula, perhaps including gradual concessions on arms sales to Taiwan.
In addition, Japan and Russia both continue to be underutilized players in the Six Party talks, despite having the capacity to do more. Russia in particular could position itself effectively as a key interlocutor between North Korea and its most vociferous opponents, including the United States. Back in 2003, the Russians presented a package aimed at verifiably disarming North Korea, but with the caveat that this should be achieved through diplomatic negotiations and not through Security Council sanctions. The Kremlin is perhaps right to note that serious confidence building measures should be undertaken on security ties between North Korea and the United States before negotiations are likely to prove fruitful.
The situation with Japan is more complicated for a number of reasons, including lingering anger over the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, historical problems tied to Japanese colonialism, and North Korea’s intentional ambiguity on future missile tests over Japanese territory. Yet despite these limitations, Japan needs to be given a strong (but tempered) voice in future discussions. After all, Japan’s defence posture is still very much focused on a potential threat from Pyongyang, and it therefore has an enormous stake in stabilized relations, especially in light of the US military bases on its territory.
Ultimately, of course, it needs to be the United States and South Korea that lead the push for a renewed policy of firm engagement with North Korea. But it would be foolish to ignore the significant role that other parties could still play.
North Korea has consistently demonstrated an unwelcome ability to spring surprises. It’s time for the Six Party nations to redouble efforts to head off any more.