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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.