The Six Party Talks between the United States, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan on one side and North Korea on the other broke down in 2009 with little to show for the six years they were active. North Korea’s nuclear activities since the breakdown of the talks makes it amply clear that the Korean peninsula is no closer to denuclearization. When the North pulled out of the talks in 2009, after it launched a “satellite” (read: Taepodong-2), it issued a harsh statement noting that “there is no need for the six-party talks any more … We will never again take part in such talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks.” A lot has changed since then, and there are burgeoning signs that the Six Party Talks might be back on the horizon.
Despite the harshness of that statement, Pyongyang may have had a slight change of heart under Kim Jong-un. The incentive for the North to seek a reset in the Six Party Talks is primarily economic this time. There are signs that Kim Jong-un, either independent of outside counsel or on the counsel of other senior DPRK leaders, sees a necessity to return to the negotiating table. Additionally, despite the North’s recent provocations towards South Korea, there are encouraging signs that Pyongyang might be interested in a more stable situation across the 38th parallel. Recent family reunions between families split by the Korean war armistice, high level talks, and Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address calling for closer relations between the two Koreas indicate that inter-Korean relations in spring 2014 will be calmer than spring 2013 when tensions were high. The give-and-take of the Six Party Talks has been simple: the North gives up its nuclear program and receives partial reprieve from biting international isolation and sanctions.
Pushing the North Koreans back to the table this time are the Chinese, who haven’t been particularly thrilled with the direction Northeast Asia’s favorite pariah state has been taking since Kim Jong-un took over. Jang Song-thaek’s execution in late 2013 was something of a wake-up call and China has spent the first two months of 2014 lobbying particularly hard for a resumption of the Six Party Talks.
Earlier this month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin made back-to-back trips to Pyongyang and Seoul – almost overlapping with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the latter – attempting to resume the talks. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying clarified that the Six Party Talks were part of the Chinese foreign policy agenda for the Korean peninsula: “We will continue to make positive efforts in our own way to press ahead with the resumption of the six-party talks,” she said. For Beijing, resuming the Six Party Talks would show the world that it can serve as a mediator within the region – a goal that Liu was doubtlessly pursuing with his shuttle diplomacy between the Koreas.
Although the DPRK is notoriously good at masking its intentions, a few statements have emerged from individuals fairly high up in the North Korean foreign affairs food chain. A lone tweet from China’s Xinhua news agency notes that “DPRK ambassador to China said the DPRK agrees on resumption of six-party talks, calling on the U.S. to fulfill its related obligations.” In a somewhat contradictory signal, North Korea’s ambassador to Moscow noted that “the chance of resuming the talks was fading away because of Washington’s hostile policy towards the North,” according to Arirang News.
China’s interest in resuming Six Party Talks is simple: it wants a more stable and predictable neighbor to its northeast. Additionally, as a report in The Diplomat earlier this month demonstrated, Chinese investors in North Korea are growing increasingly disappointed with the North’s management of its internal affairs. Initiatives like the Rason Special Economic Zone are beginning to falter because Chinese investors perceive unpalatable levels of risk in doing business in North Korea. Resuming the Six Party Talks, of course, is no panacea for the plethora of deep systemic problems the North faces, but as far as China is concerned, it’s a good start.
The United States, long frustrated by its attempts at bona fide engagement with North Korea only to face another missile test months later, sees a very limited scope for resuming the Six Party Talks at this time. For the Obama administration to come around on the talks, North Korea would have to make concrete concessions and demonstrate that it was coming to the negotiating table in good faith. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies shot down any prospect of restarting the Six Party Talks before North Korea takes concrete steps to reign in its nuclear program. “The principal obstacle has been the lack of not just interest, but meaningful steps by North Korea to demonstrate that they understand that it has to move up to its obligations and commitments,” he said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel set out a more specific game plan for what the United States would like to see before the Six Party Talks can resume. Speaking earlier this month, Russel said that should the Six Party Talks resume, North Korea must come to the negotiating table having fully accepted the terms of the 2005 joint statement. That agreement began with the following three affirmations by North Korea, the United States, and South Korea:
The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.
The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the D.P.R.K. with nuclear or conventional weapons.
The R.O.K. reaffirmed its commitment not to receive or deploy nuclear weapons in accordance with the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while affirming that there exist no nuclear weapons within its territory.
For Kim Jong-un to accede to this statement at this point, having conducted a nuclear test a mere year ago, would be a major concession. Additionally, I suspect that besides Russel’s emphasis on the joint statement, negotiations could not resume without the North making a major gesture towards the IAEA (for example).
The Obama administration additionally might lack the domestic political capital to engage in meaningful nuclear diplomacy on the North Korean issue when it has put so much on the line by engaging Iran. Should Iran and the P5+1 conclude a permanent deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Obama might be able to find another chance for diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.
Despite North Korea’s positive engagement with South Korea, it’s evident that Pyongyang still suffers from a bad case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Inviting Seoul to unconditional bilateral talks one week and then provoking it a few weeks later does not send a reassuring signal to the international community. Despite Beijing’s best efforts, I fear it will be unable to encourage North Korea to behave in a manner that would allow the Six Party Talks to resume.
The Six Party Talks may not resume in 2014, but they are back on the horizon. China and the United States would do well to find a workable middle ground on preconditions. Although the talks won’t be high on the agenda for President Obama’s April trip to Asia, he would do well to discuss it with President Park and Abe in South Korea and Japan. Ultimately, whether the talks occur or not will be a function of the North Korean regime’s intentions – its duplicity in the past has cost it a fortune in credibility and a long road lies ahead should it decide it wants to pursue negotiations in earnest. Kim Jong-un may have a small sliver of an opportunity here to eke North Korea out of its current economic rut. If he does seize the moment, he could always frame it as his attempt to fulfill his late father’s “dying wish” of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.