The six-party talks for the denuclearization of North Korea may be resumed sometime this spring after a hiatus of more than two years. South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed in Seoul last week that they would pursue direct inter-Korean talks as a prelude to reopening the six-way talks. This concurs with China’s recent proposal for a three-stage process, envisaging South-North and U.S.-North talks leading to the multilateral session joined by Russia and Japan.
Since the beginning of the year, Pyongyang has arduously called on Seoul to hold direct dialogue on unrestricted agenda. The Seoul government responded with a request for direct denuclearization talks but set the precondition of the North’s apology for its sinking of the Cheonan warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The Kim-Clinton agreement did not specifically ask Pyongyang’s responsibility for the grave provocations last year.
Wu Dawei, China’s chief negotiator on Korean Peninsula problems, hinted that Pyongyang accepted his three-stage formula for the resumption of the six-party talks. He had just met North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, who has represented the North in the multilateral talks in Beijing for the past eight years.
The six-party talks have broken all previous records in terms of the duration of international negotiations and the absolute absence of accomplishment. The talks started in August 2003 for the goal of ending North Korea’s nuclear armament programs in exchange for establishing a permanent peace regime and providing an adequate level of economic aid.
While the extended process was under way, North Korea conducted nuclear tests twice, in 2006 and 2009, along with long-range missile tests. It convinced other parties that it did not have a modicum of intent to give up its nuclear programs, which it purportedly needs for its survival. North Korea is the only party that has not changed its goal, strategy and logic for the talks. During the eight years, the other parties have undergone significant changes.
China was most conspicuous in national transformation over the intervening years. It has now become the world’s second largest economic power displaying commensurate political and military muscle in global affairs. North Korea has become a virtual vassal state of China, which is now much less concerned about the North’s nuclear programs than at the time it arranged the six-party talks.
The United States has fought two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After the Bush administration’s unimaginative, inflexible approach to Pyongyang, the Obama administration has shown only intermittent concern about the North Korean nuclear question. Any flexibility Washington sought to exercise toward Pyongyang was rather hindered by the hard-line stance of Seoul’s new conservative government. Its another ally Japan offered little support, having successive short-term governments in recent years.
Russia has maintained a lukewarm attitude toward the North, its former military ally, obsessed with not losing its meager political and economic leverage there. Moscow has shown tantalizing ambivalence regarding the North’s Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, particularly in the process of seeking condemnation from the U.N. Security Council.
The six-party talks are all but dead; only they have not been so declared. The parties all have different dreams in trying to resuscitate the multilateral process. They want to get their respective regional leadership roles recognized by the global community. Only South Korea and the United States have the real stake in denuclearization. We need to make a fresh start through direct negotiations with the North and let the U.S. join in due course as the major stakeholder.