It has proven more difficult than expected to build momentum toward the resumption of multilateral negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The differences among the countries involved in the six-party talks over the circumstances for restarting their formal discussion have not been narrowed by an inch since the U.S. and Chinese leaders agreed to work together to denuclearize the North during their summit in June.
South Korea and the U.S. have maintained that it is meaningless to reopen the talks, which have been stalled since 2008, unless North Korea shows a clear commitment to abandoning its nuclear arms through concrete actions. China has called for the early and unconditional resumption of the multilateral discussion that also involves Japan and Russia, saying it still remains an important platform to persuade the North to give up its nuclear programs and settle other security issues. Apparently prodded by Beijing, Pyongyang has reversed its stance and expressed a willingness to return to the negotiating table ― but without taking any prior steps.
During their recent talks in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi only reaffirmed differences over the reconvening of the negotiations. Speaking at a forum held in Beijing shortly before their meeting, the North’s chief nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan said his country “is ready to enter the six-party talks without preconditions.”
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is scheduled to meet separately with his U.S. and Chinese counterparts on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this week, but there still seems to be little chance that the meetings will bring a breakthrough. As this paper has noted, it may now be the time for Seoul to become more proactive and flexible to move the stalled multilateral discussion forward.
Pyongyang might be tempted into reactivating its nuclear facilities to pressure Seoul and Washington into agreeing to resume the talks on its terms, as it has previously done to gain more concessions. Satellite images analyzed by a U.S. research institute earlier this month suggested the North may have restarted a reactor at its aging Yongbyon nuclear complex. The analysis is yet to be verified but the possibility cannot be ruled out that Pyongyang will go back to its old behavior of last-minute brinkmanship. It may also want to heighten the nuclear tension to further push Seoul to concede more in inter-Korean projects after its unilateral postponement of the planned reunions for separated families last week.
But the move would bring nothing to Pyongyang, only prompting Washington and Seoul to tighten sanctions on the intractable regime and leaving Beijing with no option but to authorize them. Serious attention should also be paid to Russia’s grim warnings that the reactivation of the Yongbyon reactor might cause a Chernobyl-like disaster given its “nightmarish state.”