February’s announcement that North Korea had agreed to implement several trust-building measures in exchange for food aid from the United States set the political stage for the possible resumption of the Six-Party talks, which haven’t convened since negotiations broke down in December 2008.
The on-again, off-again talks can hardly be characterized as a model of success. Indeed, while speculation abounded that North Korea had a small number of nuclear weapons when the talks first convened in August 2003, there was no conclusive evidence until Pyongyang conducted a relatively weak underground nuclear test in October 2006. Despite additional negotiating sessions, North Korea launched a much more potent nuclear explosion in May 2009. Seven rounds of Six-Party talks had therefore seemingly yielded little in the way of concentrate results. To no one’s surprise, as presidential candidates in 2008, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden and Barack Obama all criticized the Bush administration’s multilateral forum.
After taking office, however, the Obama administration failed to devise a better alternative to the Six-Party Talks, and in December 2009 sent Special Representative Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang to establish the conditions for restarting the Bush administration’s much criticized forum, instead of beginning direct diplomacy as Obama and Biden promised in the election.
But even if there’s no alternative to the Six-Party format, the Obama administration would be insane, according to Albert Einstein’s famous definition, to continue “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Rather, the administration must carefully examine what has and hasn’t worked in the past nine years of talks, and craft a strategy accordingly. There are a few particularly important lessons.
Avoiding Crucial Mistakes – Again
Pyongyang has long sought a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice agreement that ended active fighting in the Korean War. This has been especially true in recent years. At the same time, Pyongyang’s determination to protect its sovereignty from the American and Japanese “imperialists” has led it to some injudicious actions such as its rocket and nuclear tests. Viewed by many as provocations, these songun (military first) actions, although likely taken to attract Washington’s attention, have only served to inhibit progress by further undermining Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo’s trust in North Korea. Additionally, these actions precipitated several rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions, which have further angered North Korean officials and alienated their country.
If the talks are to have any chance of bringing about the denuclearization of North Korea, careful and perspicacious policymaking must supplant careless politicking in Washington, Pyongyang, and Tokyo. The last gathering of the six parties in December 2008, for instance, broke down over a major disagreement regarding verification. Specifically, while the United States maintained that the October agreement had specified that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors would be allowed to take samples inside North Korea, Pyongyang insisted “the agreement includes no paragraph referring to the collection of samples” and doing anything not specified in the agreement was “an infringement upon sovereignty as it is little short of seeking house search.”
It was immediately apparent that there were also discernible differences in how Washington and Pyongyang interpreted the food aid for nuclear security deal. In announcing the deal, for instance, the North Korean foreign ministry stated that Pyongyang “agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Yongbyon.” The U.S. State Department, on the other hand, said, “The DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.” Thus, while the statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry indicated that North Korea agreed only to a moratorium on uranium-enrichment work at Yongbyon, the State Department’s announcement suggests the moratorium covered both plutonium and uranium-enrichment projects at Yongbyon.
Since then, Pyongyang’s announcement last month that it would launch the Kwangmyongsong-3, which it calls “an earth observation satellite,” has drawn tough criticism from Washington and its allies in the region, which argue it violates U.N. Security Council resolutions that prohibit North Korea from utilizing any kind of ballistic missile technology. Although Washington has warned Pyongyang that the launch will jeopardize the deal reached in February, which has now been suspended, North Korea insists that Kwangmyongsong-3‘s purpose is peaceful.
Pyongyang’s Kwangmyongsong-3 announcement is similar but not identical to the circumstances surrounding the launch of the Kwangmyongsong-2 in April 2009. Like now, the Kwangmyongsong-2 (which Pyongyang also maintained was a satellite designed to explore space) was seen as provocative by the United States, Japan, South Korea and others. Similarly, Pyongyang also gave advance notice about the 2009 launch to international organizations. However, the U.N. Security Council issued a Presidential Statement in April 2009 condemning the launch, which caused Pyongyang to state that it was through with the Six-Party talks; a few months later, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test.
The proposed launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 appears to be largely for domestic reasons, since it coincides with, and seems likely to be intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the country’s founding father and eternal president. Although Beijing has told Pyongyang that it has “concerns and worries” about its plans to launch the Kwangmyongsong-3, it also has stated that it sincerely hopes that all parties “remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid bigger complexity caused by the escalation of [the] situation.”
The possibility still exists that Pyongyang could be persuaded to cancel the launch. However, if the goal of the Obama administration is really to restart the Six-Party talks, and to have North Korea fulfill its stated commitment to denuclearization, then Washington should focus on this far more important objective, especially given the still-problematic condition of the North’s rocket technology.
North Korea’s long-standing dispute with Tokyo over the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970’s and 1980’s, meanwhile, is another potential spoiler of the Six-Party talks. In the past, the abduction issue has made Japan something of an outlier in these discussions. For instance, unlike the other parties, Tokyo has refused to offer aid to North Korea in exchange for concessions on the nuclear front. Tokyo has also urged Washington not to settle with North Korea until progress is made on the kidnapping issue.
Should the Six-Party talks resume after a three-year hiatus, the Obama administration must make clear to Tokyo that the unresolved abduction issue can’t be drawn in. As unfortunate as these kidnappings were, they are completely unrelated to the nuclear problem, and thus the talks.
Decoupling the abduction issue from the Six-Party talks won’t be easy, however. The issue is highly-politicized in Tokyo, leaving Japanese officials little room to maneuver. More than one statement from the talks indicates that discussions between Japan and North Korea for establishing normal relations will be consistent with the Pyongyang Declaration (signed in September 2002 between the late Kim Jong Il and former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi) and will focus on “the settlement of unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern.”
Moreover, in one of her first significant speeches as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton remarked, “I will assure our allies in Japan that we have not forgotten the families of the Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea.” Just a few days later, on her maiden overseas trip to Japan as America’s top diplomat, she told members of the abductees’ families that it is necessary to “pressure” North Korea to settle the abduction issue. And during an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun during the same trip, Clinton said she had “reassured the families that I met with that the abductee issue is part of the Six-Party talks; it remains a matter of grave concern to the United States.”
Conditional Peace Treaty
Fortunately, there’s a practical way to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. Five of the six parties want to see North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. Pyongyang itself has often said over the last several years that it’s committed to denuclearization, which was specified in the joint statement that came out of the six-party talks in September 2005. Moreover, right now it seems clear that leader Kim Jong-un will continue to adhere to his father’s security policies for North Korea, including the making of a peace treaty. However, Pyongyang wants assurances that its sovereignty will be protected. Because Pyongyang wants the armistice agreement to be replaced by a permanent peace treaty, which is also mentioned in the September 2005 joint statement, the most reasonable diplomatic strategy is to get all six parties to do what they have already committed themselves to.
A conditional peace treaty that becomes permanent after the denuclearization of North Korea is a no-nonsense approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. Such an accord places a major restraint on the problematic politics that have thus far scuttled the six-party process.
Simply put, a conditional peace treaty establishes a quid pro quo. First, the six parties agree to a reasonable period – say 1 to 2 years – in which North Korea would have to completely denuclearize with stringent monitoring from the IAEA. If Pyongyang doesn’t fulfill its commitment, barring some unforeseen circumstances, the treaty would become void. A conditional peace treaty that becomes permanent would substantially lessen the attention given to the naysayers who insist Pyongyang has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons.
With the signing of the conditional peace treaty, which would include all the participants in the Korean War, the U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea should be rescinded. Along with any humanitarian and energy assistance given to North Korea associated with the Six-Party talks, this would provide positive motivation to Pyongyang to complete the denuclearization process. By using its influence in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Washington could ensure North Korea gets access to developmental resources, bolstering North Korea’s sluggish economy and giving Pyongyang even more incentive to denuclearize. With Tokyo, Washington could do the same with the Asia Development Bank.
A conditional peace treaty that would become permanent with the IAEA-verified denuclearization of North Korea would markedly improve the security environment in Northeast Asia. An important clause of the conditional peace treaty needs to specify that upon denuclearization, North Korea will officially rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state.
The signing of a conditional peace treaty would provide an unprecedented opportunity for Tokyo and Pyongyang to resolve the Japanese abduction issue, while at the same creating the conditions for North Korea to settle its own historical differences with Japan. Finally, there’s no reason to believe that a peace treaty wouldn’t improve North-South relations, which have been badly strained during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak, and ultimately provide a positive foundation for the unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Anthony DiFilippo is Professor of Sociology at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, United States. He is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which is ‘U.S.-Japan-North Korean Security Relations: Irrepressible Interests.’ (Routledge 2011).