Ten years after the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program were established and eight years after North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons program, rejoin the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and allow the reentry of IAEA monitors in the September 19, 2005, joint statement, Pyongyang remains intransigent and intent on bolstering its capabilities. China is pushing for the resumption of the talks to ease mounting regional tensions, yet North Korean officials are only willing to return to the table if Pyongyang is not bound by preconditions. The United States and South Korea are unwilling to reconvene talks before North Korea takes concrete steps that demonstrate its seriousness about denuclearization.
In this Q&A, Paul Haenle says that ideally, the parties will be able to return to the Six-Party Talks framework one day with all countries genuinely working toward the central goal of North Korea’s denuclearization. But the prospect of that happening anytime soon looks increasingly remote.
I had the opportunity to serve as the White House representative to the Six-Party Talks from June 2007 to January 2009, a rare period in history when North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia were all actively working toward North Korean denuclearization. When talks were under way, they allowed for frequent multilateral communication between all parties, which contributed to regional stability and to the overall goal of denuclearization.
During this time, North Korea took important first steps toward nuclear disarmament, allowed international inspectors to verify this process on the ground at its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, turned over a detailed report of its nuclear program to the United States, and disabled some of the key facilities at Yongbyon. In return, and in accordance with agreements made within the Six-Party Talks framework, North Korea received energy assistance and was removed from the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act and the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
While progress was modest, it is important to note that during this period at least denuclearization efforts were not moving backward. Because of that, the U.S. administration supported the Six-Party Talks framework as the primary means to address the North Korean nuclear problem.
The Six-Party Talks have been stalled since December 2008, when North Korea failed to agree to a verification protocol for its nuclear program. It subsequently restarted the program and barred nuclear inspectors from the country. Most recently, Pyongyang began to express a desire to restart talks in May 2013 after a series of its belligerent provocations resulted in a new round of UN sanctions and deteriorating relations with its closest ally, China.
On September 18, in Beijing, North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan told a multilateral forum that North Korea is prepared to return to the talks but is unwilling to accept any preconditions, which would cause mistrust among parties. According to Chinese media, Kim attempted to shift the focus of future talks from the goal of ridding North Korea of its nuclear program to a more general discussion on nuclear disarmament. Finally, Kim avoided speaking directly about North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, instead suggesting that other parties be held equally responsible for achieving denuclearization of the peninsula.
Kim’s remarks left the other parties skeptical and concerned. China’s leading North Korea expert, Zhang Liangui, concluded that by refusing any preconditions, North Korea is effectively rejecting its commitments to the 2005 joint statement and claiming that the results of the previous Six-Party Talks are invalid. Yet, Zhang pointed out that new talks must uphold and advance the previous talks. Furthermore, Zhang stated that North Korea “is hoping via the new talks to change its role from that of the supervised country into that of a supervisor.” There is deep concern that North Korea will seek to use Six-Party Talks to gain recognition as a nuclear-weapons state—an unacceptable outcome for all of the other five parties.
The United States, along with South Korea and Japan, believes it would be premature to discuss reconvening the Six-Party Talks until there is evidence that North Korea is still committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and programs.
Without evidence to suggest that Pyongyang is seriously committed to denuclearization, all parties risk finding themselves back in the oft-repeated, negative cycle of brinksmanship and provocation.
For now, all signs point in the opposite direction. Since the Six-Party Talks were last convened in December 2008, North Korea has restarted its nuclear program, barred inspectors, conducted its second and third nuclear tests, sunk a South Korean navy ship, revealed a new uranium enrichment facility that would give it a second path to developing a nuclear weapon, shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, launched long-range ballistic missiles, and threatened a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea. Pyongyang has pronounced that it will never give up its nuclear program and that part of its national strategy is to pursue simultaneous development of its economy and nuclear capabilities.
These developments complicate the efforts of the United States and its allies to find a path back to talks. They also may explain the rationale behind the United States’ recent enhancements of its security presence in the region, deepened cooperation with regional allies, and more visible deployment of certain weapon systems.
These developments make it next to impossible for the United States to return to the Six-Party Talks at this time.
Any reopening of the Six-Party Talks must be done on the basis of the previous talks. Returning to talks now without addressing the long list of provocations and detrimental developments would allow North Korea to have reset the table for negotiations in a way that undercuts the goals of North Korean nuclear disarmament and negatively impacts the credibility of the Six-Party Talks framework.
It would also undermine the arduous efforts by the parties. China, as the chair of the Six-Party Talks, and most of the other parties put an incredible amount of energy and political capital into the previous rounds. The agreements that were reached and commitments made by all sides were difficult and taxing to achieve. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the effort a “tortuous process.”
It is essential that all parties do what they can to work to maintain the credibility, viability, and integrity of the Six-Party Talks and their ultimate aims.
While in the past Washington and Beijing have focused for the most part on bilateral issues, the major challenges and opportunities ahead will come in working together to address critical global challenges, including the North Korea issue.
North Korea emerged as a one key area for U.S.-China cooperation under the new type of great power relations framework that Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed at a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in June 2013. Both sides acknowledged their shared interests on the issue. They agreed that North Korea must denuclearize, that continuing to apply pressure to Pyongyang was important, and that addressing North Korean nuclear proliferation was an area for enhanced cooperation.
More recently, following his meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in September, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Washington and Beijing were committed to a new model of cooperation.
China has urged the United States to return to the Six-Party Talks as soon as possible. Washington has hoped for some time that Beijing would put more pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. However, for its own reasons China has not applied the degree of pressure desired by the United States.
This gridlock is not new—the United States and China have been here before. What is new is the expressed desire on both sides to explore new models of cooperation.
Washington and Beijing should use this opportunity to transcend the old dynamics of the relationship and find new ways to address this growing threat. A new approach is needed that takes each side’s views and concerns into account but also finds a way to make progress. Officials in both the United States and China should not set unrealistic criteria or have unrealistic expectations in efforts to achieve these new models of cooperation.
Prior to considering a return to the Six-Party Talks, the parties must hold more informal sessions like the Track 1.5 dialogue that was held by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing on September 18. These informal sessions can build trust between the parties and help answer critical questions that need to be addressed before any return to the six-party table.
All parties, including most importantly North Korea, must be ready to demonstrate a willingness to achieve the objectives agreed to in the 2005 joint statement before talks can begin again. All parties have to be willing to return to where they left off in December 2008 and to the commitments and obligations they made then, even if that means reversing previous actions and clarifying previous negative statements. All must also be ready to talk about what measures can be put in place to ensure that parties stick by their commitments and what kind of enforcement measures can be applied.
If the parties are unable to build trust through this process and unable to address these issues in a clear and effective manner—or worse, if they discover that certain parties are no longer committed to their previous agreements—then there will be no reason to return to the Six-Party Talks. But if trust can be built and pressing questions answered with real clarity, then there may yet be a way to restart the talks and forcefully move toward the goals all parties agreed to in 2005.